For nine years now, the group that grew out of the disbanded Dale Warland Singers has been presenting Christmas concerts called “What Sweeter Music” that take audiences to all sorts of unexpected places, yet leave listeners richer for undertaking the adventure with them. This year’s program is no exception.
On Sunday afternoon, conductor Matthew Culloton and the 42-voice choir brought the audience at Edina’s Good Samaritan Methodist Church into 17 distinct sound worlds, providing intriguing takes on carols from England, Appalachia and Scandinavia, as well as offering updates of traditional carols that don’t stomp all over your most cherished memories. Quite the contrary, they present opportunities to view them in a new light.
Like, for example, Swedish composer Jan Sandstrom’s mystical take on “Lo, How a Rose E’re Blooming,” which sends you aloft on a cloud of monastic drones and ethereal soprano voices.
Or J. Aaron McDermid’s intriguing arrangement of “I Wonder as I Wander” or Culloton’s dark-hued version of “Angels We Have Heard on High,” presented as an encore.
As for adding new works to the Christmas canon, here’s a nomination for “Bethlehem Down” by Peter Warlock, an English composer of the early 20th century. Going head to head with countrymen John Rutter, Benjamin Britten and William Walton, Warlock more than held his own: The Singers whetted my appetite to hear more of his repertoire.
But the most transporting work of the afternoon was a collection of four Christmas motets by 20th-century French composer Francis Poulenc.
They were things of rare beauty when given voice by the group. Perhaps the Good Samaritan interior treated the harmonies a little dryly, but they should sound spectacular when the same program is performed in a resonant space like St. Paul’s Nativity Church next Sunday.
Rob Hubbard can be reached at email@example.com.
Capsule: Old carols get insightful updates; new works demand a listen.