Contemporary Works Frame Britten Centerpiece

United StatesUnited States Britten Centenary Christmas program: Catherine Barrett (harp), Michael Partington (guitar), Timothy Helming (marimba), Seattle Pro Musica, Karen P. Thomas (conductor), Town Hall, Seattle, 7.12.2013 (BJ)


Sarum chant: A solis ortus cardine
Ivan Moody: Carol of the Magi
Michael Sitton: The Gentyle Storke
Benjamin Britten: A Boy was Born
Bernard Hughes: The Shepherds’ Carol
Joel Martinson: There is no rose
Gabriel Jackson: The Christ Child
Hughes: I am Christmas
Britten: A Ceremony of Carols
Alice Parker: Roll Round with the Year
Conrad Susa: Carols and Lullabies: Christmas in the Southwest

Seattle Pro Musica’s artistic director, composer and conductor Karen P. Thomas, has a talent for illuminating her programs through spatial deployment of her singers. In this program, her chorus’s processional entries and recessional exits notably enhanced the effect of the music, both in the plainchant, A solis ortus cardine, that opened the afternoon dramatically in a darkened hall, and at the beginning and end of the program’s centerpiece, Britten’s Ceremony of Carols.

It hardly needs saying that such effects would go for very little if the performances they adorn were less than excellent. But even “excellent” is something of an understatement as a description of the Pro Musica’s achievement. In addition to her sense of theater Thomas is a consummate musician, who has trained her singers to a hair’s breadth of accuracy and tonal richness, and leads them with calm authority and with unfailing sensitivity to the expressive needs of the music she programs.

In the matter of programming, too, Thomas deserves praise for her willingness to commission and perform works by composers little, or not at all, known to her Seattle audience. In 2012, one such work, I Sing of Love, by Bernard Hughes, made a particularly strong impression, so I was please to find two of his shorter pieces on this program. Both of them served to confirm my favorable judgment of this young British composer’s talents: he combines the ability to employ age-old techniques, including, as the program note observed, the 14th-century’s so-called “Landini cadence,” alongside a fresh contemporary idiom with no sense of incongruity. The surprising final cadence of his I am Christmas was especially voluptuous.

Aside from a rare outing for A Boy was Born, an astonishing Britten youth-work for 8-part chorus full of technical challenges that the Pro Musica met with aplomb, A Ceremony of Carols provided the apt centerpiece for this Christmas season celebration of the composer’s centenary. Interspersed with fluent contributions from harpist Catherine Barrett, the choral work was again impeccable, and the solos were tackled skillfully by singers drawn from the chorus, among whom Katie Skovhold was outstanding.

My admiration for Karen Thomas’s eclectic programming does not necessarily extend to all the composers she champions. It was bad luck for the 53-year-old Joel Martinson that his modest setting of There is no rose found itself on a program that also held A Ceremony of Carols, for Britten’s setting of the same text came as a vivid demonstration of the difference between genius and mere competence. Alice Parker’s Roll Round with the Year, too, proved to be a somewhat uninspired piece of work.

Nevertheless, it is always good to encounter new compositional voices. A healthy musical diet need not be made up exclusively of masterpieces. Thomas’s assemblage of American and British composers added up to a coherent and well varied program, and the final work, an exuberant set of Spanish-language carols with neat accompaniments for harp, guitar, and marimba, served as a welcome memorial salute to composer Conrad Susa, who had died just two weeks earlier.

Bernard Jacobson

Seattle-area music-lovers have two final chances to hear this program on Saturday 14 December at 3:00 and 7:30 p.m., when it will be given again at Bastyr University in Kenmore, WA.

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