It was time for the concert to begin. The women and men of the Clare College, Cambridge Choir processed in, not down the center aisle of St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, but down both side aisles. When they had positioned themselves from front to back of the nave, the nave lights were dimmed, then turned off completely. The only illumination was from the bright twin LED bulbs carried by the singers in portable devices attached to their music folders, as they began to sing one of the evening’s longer works, Thomas Tallis’ six-voice motet for the first vespers of Candlemas, Videte miraculum (“Behold the miracle”). Director Graham Ross conducted from the center aisle, the portable light enabling the singers to see his baton-less hands.

This was an effective presentation, not without the natural drama of the darkened church, but not entirely successful musically unless one was seated next to the center aisle, midway between the two rows of singers. The audience members who were closer to any of the singers did not hear a balanced choral sound because a few sopranos, altos, tenors, or basses were very close to them.

Nevertheless, the clarity of diction and the purity of pitch were obvious to all. A plainsong hymn, “Verbum supernum,” served as processional music as the choir moved to the chancel steps, where they continued with one of Palestrina’s double-chorus motets, Surge, illuminare (“Arise, shine”).

The singers’ sound was opulent. They sang with assurance and superb command of pitch throughout the evening’s mostly a cappella twenty-two works. Their diction was impeccable enough that we heard “Beth-lee-hem” (a new pronunciation to my ears) and their consistent use of Germanic Latin, even when singing Palestrina. With their long tradition of choral singing (for many years directed by John Rutter), they are the equal of the finest U.S. university choirs. This year’s group could benefit from one or two more altos for balance (there are ten sopranos, six altos, five tenors, and eight basses), and some of the basses had an “edge” on their sound which was more noticeable when they sang from the side aisles. Only eight singers are music majors; others read classics, philosophy, English, various other languages, history, medicine, natural sciences, and archaeology. As always, music is the international language which may be learned by all who love it as an additional voice of expression.

It was good to hear the Magnificat, with carols interpolated for Christmas, by Hieronymus Praetorius (no relation to Michael P., the composer of “Lo, how a rose”). This Praetorius, who lived from 1560 to 1629, composed in the then-new Venetian polychoral style, setting this canticle from St. Luke for two choirs, SSAT/ATBB. While he embraced this new compositional technique, Praetorius chose not to use one of the more common techniques of his time, the accompaniment of the voices by a keyboard instrument and a ‘cello or violone. The program also included music by recent British composers such as Britten, Howells, Mathias, and Tavener, as well as the première of an arrangement of “Silent Night” by Graham Ross himself. Tavener’s “God is with us” brought what the program notes described as “an inspired surprise,” when just before its conclusion, and after an entire half-concert of unaccompanied singing, the work suddenly incorporated the organ, making its presence known with a full-organ chord. Given that the pipe organ at St. Michael’s speaks from both ends of the nave, it was surely an act of grace that no one in the audience fainted!

Other highlights in the program:

  • Benjamin Britten’s gorgeous “A Hymn to the Virgin,” a setting of a 14th-century macaronic text. The Latin words were sung by a solo quartet from the back of the nave, the main body of singers remaining in the front.
  • John Joubert’s carol, “Torches,” with its march tempo and vigorous organ accompaniment.
  • John Rutter’s well-known setting of Robert Herrick’s “What sweeter music.” This was a beautiful performance of Rutter at his most melodious and without his occasional penchant for a more “pop style” of writing. As this composer was himself the director of this choir for some years, it’s clear that his DNA has been passed down to the present generation of singers.
  • James Burton’s 2016 setting of “Tomorrow shall be my dancing day,” written for the Choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge. This swinging music (7/8 rhythm dominates) and the setting of the complete carol, rather than just a few stanzas, is worthy of being well-known.

And then this proper English choir switched gears and became…a show choir! Phil Springer’s “Santa Baby” was cute, but the fully-choreographed version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” was almost too good to be true. It produced much laughter from the audience, and well-deserved ovations of applause. While it was a hard act to follow, there was an encore: “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” as Santa arrived in full-blown jazz style.

From North Carolina, the Clare College Choir journeys to Vermont for the next concert of its current USA tour.