Lessons and Carols lies at the heart of Christmas worship, with prophecies from the Old Testament, tales from the New, narrating the story of Jesus’s birth, both with readings and song.
Nine narratives—the Lessons—interspersed with Carols old and new, have formed the core of Christmas Eve services all over the world. None are more famous than that at King’s College, Cambridge, a celebration that began a century ago.
Skylark Vocal Ensemble paid tribute to the King’s College legacy Wednesday evening, before a sold-out room at First Congregational Church in Falmouth. The enthusiastic audience was certainly there to celebrate the season, but also to enjoy the artistry of Matthew Guard’s twelve talented singers, and his thoughtful and historic program. The fact that Skylark was recently nominated for two Grammy Awards clearly did not diminish the crowd, or its enthusiasm, either.
The King’s College holiday program has always been based both on tradition, and on change—new works, from some of the most well-known modern composers, are an annual part of its concert. Premieres from Judith Weir, Richard Rodney Bennett, Stephen Paulus, Nicholas Maw, Thomas Adès, and Harrison Birtwistle—just to name a few—have been a regular part of the Christmas Eve service. So is the world-wide BBC radio broadcast of the program, which many in the audience had no doubt heard before.
This Skylark performance was a secular service, not a religious one, and Guard chose not to have the Lessons read out loud. He simply printed them in the program, and focused on the music. A wise choice: the faith that drives this ceremony escapes many, but what never escapes is the beauty of devotion in song.
Each of the dozen singers—three to a part, equally divided between men and women—is a significant performer in their own right. Together, Guard has blended an impressive sonic fabric, distinct enough to allow each instrument to sound clearly, but never become overpowering or “shouty” the way some vocal ensembles can be.
Many solo moments stood out, and there were many intricate, multi-part settings. But some of best singing, like a chorus from R. L. Pearsall’s “In Dulci Jubilo,” came from the unison sound of the ensemble.
Sarah Moyer spotlighted the opening processional with the boy soprano part in “Once in Royal David’s City,” and her tone was a highlight throughout. Soprano Rebecca Myers and tenor Nathan Hodgson alternated verses in the starkly affecting “In The Bleak Midwinter.” Mezzo Clare McNamara brought beautiful tone and power to Benjamin Britten’s “Corpus Christi Carol.”
Baritone Enrico Lagasca, perhaps a standout among equals, sang with force and strikingly pure tone in Peter Cornelius’s “The Three Kings”—a clever setting, arranged by Ivor Atkins, that placed the rest of the ensemble, singing an alternate text, against Lagasca’s solo line.
Guard commissioned his own new work for this program, in keeping with the King’s College tradition. Patrick Green’s “Lo How A Rose e’er Blooming,” sandwiched between other “Rose” settings by Herbert Howells and by Tchaikovsky, balanced its traditional sound with contemporary details. In at least four parts, with a lovely soprano line for Moyer, and alternating male and female verses, the premiere was a highlight of the fourth lesson. Additional compositions and arrangements from David Willcocks, Arvo Pärt, William Byrd and John Tavener filled out Guard’s profoundly moving and beautifully executed program.
Skylark Vocal Ensemble repeats Lessons and Carols on Thursday, Dec. 20 at 6:00 p.m. at St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church, 625 Main St., Chatham, and Saturday, Dec. 22 at 4:00 p.m. in St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, 166 High St., Newburyport. Visit www.skylarkensemble.org or call 401-395-0498.