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Masterworks 2014 Haydn, Bruckner, Lauridsen, Gjeilo

CONCERT REVIEW: Leaping across centuries – Santa Barbara Choral Society presents bold program

By JOSEF WOODARD, NEWS-PRESS CORRESPONDENT

April 5, 2014 6:35 PM

If the first quarter of 2014 is any indication, we’re in the midst of a banner year for the choral music cause and subculture in Santa Barbara. The choral muse was bestowing goodness and plenty starting in February, with the arrival of the concentrated western regional and actually international sweep of the Western Division sof the ACDA (American Choral Director’s Association) conference for a few dense days, and the choral might and luster continued last weekend with a notably strong, century-hopping program by the Santa Barbara Choral Society at the Lobero.

Interestingly, a common denominator with both events came in the form of one of choral music’s great living composers, the Los Angeles-based Morten Lauridsen. His music, and the man and performer himself, appeared on the Granada stage during an all-Lauridsen concert and tribute event in February with the LA Master Chorale—with whom he was a composer-in-residence.

At the Lobero last weekend, he turned up again, offering warming words, performing on piano for his sweet, gentle closing piece, “Sure on this Shining Night,” and eloquently introduced what was likely the centerpiece of the concert, his rightfully famous and oft-sung “Lux Aeterna.” Performed by the Choral Society ten years ago, both here and on tour in Europe, it was again gloriously realized by the group, grandly led by director JoAnn Wasserman, along with an orchestral complement. Mr. Mortensen’s classic piece, as the composer explained onstage, is a reflection on the translation of the Latin, “eternal light,” and not only in terms of “spirituality but enlightenment, and is a “half-hour meditation on this concept.”

On this intentionally era-bounding program — dubbed “Past and Present Masters” — in which the first half was devoted to the “Te Deum” works in C major by 18th century master Haydn and 19th century romantic Bruckner, respectively, Mr. Lauridsen’s “greatest hit” comes across as a delicate synthesis of Renaissance and 20th century musical manners. The work’s power partly resides in its deft interweaving of stylistic reference points fresh and ancient, not unlike the choral writing of the recently-belated English composer John Taverner. Early musical airs and contrapuntal devices combine with Copland-esque open harmonic colors and cautiously optimistic spirits.

As seen and heard here in the Choral Society’s last performance, the Christmas program, the move to the Lobero has meant a densely populated stage—once the orchestra, soloists and other elements combine with the singers’ ranks—and also an acoustic more tight and focused than its previous venue homes, at the Granada and the San Roque Parish chapel. This concert was no exception, as the choral group/orchestra dove into clean and rigorous splendor of the all-chorus-based edifice of Haydn’s “Te Deum for Empress Therese,” and the more emotive Romantic contours of Bruckner’s piece, fortified by a quartet of fine soloists—soprano Tamara Bevard, mezzo/alto Nike St. Clair, tenor Tyler Thompson and bass Ralph Cato—and building to a stirring finale.

In the concert’s second half, though lorded over by the Lauridsen component of the evening, we got a hearty taste of short pieces by the young Norwegian composer Ola Geilo. Four short-ish works showed the range of the composer’s musical thinking, from Norwegian folk-tinged sonorities to the surprising mawkish pop flavorings of “The Ground.” Thankfully, that piece was in sharp contrast to the contemplative and enigmatic “Northern Lights,” one of the many sublime moments in a bold and concert well-equipped with high points.