By David Hawley

Special to the Pioneer Press

Minnesota is renowned as choral country, and the holiday choral season is upon us. While this generally isn’t the time when the most innovative vocal music is performed, it’s still a treat to listen to some of the best choruses in the nation.

Count among them the Singers, an ensemble of 40 or so vocalists that has strong ties to the legendary Dale Warland Singers, ranked as one of the best a cappella choirs in the world before it was disbanded in 2004. One of Warland’s top lieutenants, Matthew Culloton, organized the Singers, and the group has built an admiring fan base and has produced a handful of equally admired recordings.

Their annual Christmas program, “What Sweeter Music,” is a spirit-lifting compilation of familiar Christmas carols in interesting, less-than-familiar arrangements, plus short works in languages ranging from Norwegian to Spanish and, of course, Latin. The program also includes several audience sings – and, suffice to say, the audience rendition of “Silent Night” at Friday’s first performance demonstrated that the listeners also knew a thing or two about choral singing.

Musically, the Singers are a wonderfully well-shaped instrument, with pure and balanced vocal textures and pristine articulation. It is a clean-sounding ensemble, enormously flexible, and, for its size, it is capable of a sonority that can be equally fulsome or transparent.

This kind of dexterity was on full display when the ensemble performed two selections – the Sanctus and Benedictus – from the Mass by Swiss composer Frank Martin. An early work, from when Martin was whipsawing between Bach and Schoenberg, the two sections feature surging, tidelike waves in the Sanctus and eerie open chords in the Benedictus, both beautifully rendered.

Z. Randall Stroope’s “All My Heart This Night Rejoices” had an affirmative joy to it that made the scalp tingle, and a terrific arrangement of a Basque carol, “Gabriel’s Message,” by ensemble member Joshua Shank opened with a massive, dramatically built chord that flowed into an energetic four-part carol rendition.

For a closing, the ensemble turned to Minnesota’s own choral giant, Stephen Paulus, and his antic-rhythm arrangement of “Joy to the World.” In short, a spirited time for all.

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