Voices of olde, new and yule : Quire of Voyces lives up to strong reputation

By JOSEF WOODARD NEWS-PRESS CORRESPONDENT

December 25, 2013 6:13 AM

One of Santa Barbara’s most cherished and anticipated Christmas season traditions requires audience members to navigate to an enlightened far corner of a historic property, being the former St. Anthony’s Seminary (now the Garden Street Academy) and its magical, cloistered ambience. There in that inspired setting, just before Christmas each year, the sublime a cappella group Quire of Voyces, founded and directed by Nathan Kreitzer, extends its subtle musical wares in an ideal context.

Last weekend’s Voyces concerts were especially well-attended, and the season is a ripe one in the group’s history. This is the group’s 20th anniversary season, and it has just released a fascinating new CD, “Christmas with the Quire of Voyces,” recorded in this very chapel, with all of its glorious natural reverb. Come February, the group hosts the American Choral Directors Association Western Division conference, a feast of musical offerings for local choral music aficionados, which seems to be a plentiful lot.

In keeping with the ensemble’s musical M.O., the old world meets the new world, in venue and in musical fodder – reaching back to the Renaissance and forward to the 20th century (and often, with little in-between). This year’s program opened with 500-year-old English choral music, by John Amner, William Byrd and two pieces by Thomas Tallis, before leaping forward to a variation on “The Holly and the Ivy” by 20th century composer Reginald Jacques, the accessibly modern-ish blush of a very young Benjamin Britten’s “A Boy was Born” and American composer Stephen Paulus’ “God with Me,” a piece basking in a simple radiance.

Without a doubt, the most powerful piece of the first half – and likely the concert – came with John Paynter’s 1969 composition “The Rose.” With its cannily structured design and careful use of clusters and dissonances, the work exuded a particular haunting beauty, especially in the precious ambience of this sanctuary space.

This concert also paid due respects to important composers who passed away this year. The Quire performed the late and respected “holy minimalist” composer John Tavener’s “The Lamb” – opening with ethereal soprano voices and incorporating tonal tensions and fast-against-slow lines – and the recently belated Norwegian composer Egil Havland’s “Stay with Us,” with a muted, mysterious hummed passage playing out like a prescient exit strategy.

From elsewhere in the 20th (and 21st) century zone, the famed Los Angeles-based Morton Lauridsen’s “O magnum mysterium” attained its proper beatific glow, with minimal modernist interventions. Closer yet to home and the present moment, the group’s own composer-in-residence, Michael Eglin, offered a premiere of “A Midnight Clear” – its familiar text melodically revisited – and a highlight from the new CD, “Sweet Babe in Twilight Shade.” Making the customary concession to more standard fare Christmas music, but on its own terms, the group closed the program with “Silent Night,” but through the filtering lens of Sir Malcolm Arnold’s post-impressionistic arrangement.

As usual, Mr. Kreitzer’s special choir produced a glorious, seamlessly unified and disciplined ensemble sound, living up to the high standards it has set for itself. By now, it is hard to imagine Christmas in Santa Barbara without a spirited – and spiritual – dose of the Voyces.