I was more than a little nervous as I headed to the Carmel Mission Sunday evening to hear I Cantori di Carmel’s concert “A Winter Tapestry.” This was not due to any misgivings about the performers, as Sal Ferrantelli always puts on a good show. No, my fears were about what the climate might be like inside the historic structure on as frigid a night as I can remember in Carmel. Fortunately, the temperature inside the venerable old building was quite pleasant, and the audience was able to enjoy one of Ferrantelli’s best programs to date in complete comfort.
The highlight of the evening was Eric Whitacre’s “Five Hebrew Love Songs.” At first blush, this work might seem a bit incongruous in a Christmas (or even winter) concert. However, the fourth of the five songs brought it clearly into alignment with the season. “Eyze sheleg!” (“What snow!) was the perfect sound tapestry for a bitterly cold winter evening. Whitacre is at his best in this piece, full of pseudo-onomatapoetic devices that made one hear the snowfall and feel the winter’s stark calm. I Cantori caught the mood perfectly, with intense hushed tones against the contrasting harmony in the violin. The entire work was lovingly sung by the ensemble and played most delicately by pianist Pauline Troia and the small string ensemble led by David Dally.
There was another outlier for this concert, Schumann’s “Widmung” (“Dedication”) as adapted from the original solo song for male chorus. The men of I Cantori have never sounded better, yet to me this was the least successful programming choice, as any connection with the season was tenuous at best. It followed a lovely “Ave Maria” setting by Gabriel Faure for women’s voices and piano, and perhaps it was there to provide equal time for the men.
The evening started off with a clever processional put together by J. Edmond Hughes, in which the men and women alternated the plainchant versions of “Veni Emmanuel” and “Hodie Christus natus est,” punctuated by handbells and tone chimes. Ferrantelli wisely had the singers segue from the exciting choral “Alleluia” into Handel’s “And the Glory of the Lord” from “Messiah,” providing a highly effective and entertaining opening to the concert.
Ferrantelli himself contributed two works to the program. These were his “Quia respexit,” part of the text to the “Song of Mary,” and his setting of the “Kyrie” from the Catholic mass. Both were lush, with long melodic lines in a neo-Romantic style, with piano and string accompaniment. The “Kyrie” was made up of lilting, dotted rhythms, and is perhaps the most optimistic sounding setting of this text that I have encountered. Both pieces were quite enjoyable.
The second highlight for me was Ola Gjielo’s “Serenity,” which is a setting of “O magnum mysterium” for chorus and violin. This piece was absolutely gorgeous, beginning with a slow pulsing motif on individual syllables of the text over a very simple chord structure. This gradually morphed into long, overlapping sonorities which gradually became intertwined melodic lines leading into a thick, rich and complex “Alleluia.” The singers handled the various moods of the piece with aplomb, and Dally made the solo violin line soar with grace and beauty.
Among the more traditional settings were “Il est ne, le Divin enfant” and the traditional Italian “Once as I remember.” Ferrantelli composed a flute obbligato to provide some contrast for the last verse, but alas, it was a bit too low to be heard well. From what I could tell, Laura Cohan did a terrific job as the soloist. I would have liked to have heard more of it.
I was not enamored of Ian Humphris’s arrangement of “The Yorkshire Wassail,” which closed the first half. To me, the harmonies for the opening triple meter sections of each verse were too somber for what is really a joyous caroling tune. That being said, the singers did a fine job with it, and the others in the audience enjoyed it greatly.
There were a couple of other gems on the program. David Willcocks’s rhythmic “Birthday Carol” had a driving energy propelled forward by the constant shifting of the underlying meter, and Hugo Distler’s “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen” was a modern yet tonal take on the ancient tune that is well known as “Lo, how a rose e’er blooming.” Ferrantelli used the Distler to contrast his own adaptation of the traditional harmonies first laid out by Michael Praetorius.
I have to admit, I have a soft spot for settings of the “Magnificat,” and Ferrantelli managed to find one by a composer I did not know. Giacomo Perti was a rough contemporary of Bach, and the choir master in Bologna for 60 years. His setting of the text is not particularly novel, using many of the dramatic devices for the different verses that had become commonplace over the prior 200 year. Nevertheless, it was quite serviceable, and the closing fugues were actually quite thrilling. I Cantori and the instrumentalists made the piece come alive, and It was altogether a most satisfying conclusion to a delightful concert.