The title of last night’s program in the Old First Concerts series at Old First Church was Make a Joyful Noise! The Alumnae Chorus, consisting of past members of the San Francisco Girls Chorus, presented a diverse evening of chant, carols, and song for the Christmas season. The title is the opening line of the two texts from the Book of Psalms that framed the program, both given contemporary settings. Things began with René Clausen’s vigorous interpretation of Psalm 100 and concluded with Rollo Dilworth’s free gospel-tinged adaptation of the text of Psalm 98.
To the ensemble’s credit, they did not fall back on a routine performance of Benjamin Britten’s Opus 28 A Ceremony of Carols. However, they did offer up alternative approaches to several of the texts that Britten selected for his cycle. This included two contrapuntal settings of “Hodie Christus Natus Est,” the chant Britten selected for his “Procession” and “Recession” movements, one by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina and the other by the contemporary composer Józef Karai. There were also two settings of the anonymous text for “There is no rose,” one in early anonymous two-voice counterpoint and the other by Eleanor Daley (also contemporary). Finally, there was a modern setting of “Adam lay ybounden,” the carol embedded in “Deo Gratias,” the last of Britten’s carol movements.
With all this emphasis on living composers, however, the most modern selection on the program was probably the “Noël des Enfants qui n’ont plus de maison,” a “carol” for homeless children. Claude Debussy wrote this while France was fighting the First World War; and it is a stark account of children who have lost everything, both family and homes. The least “joyful” of the “noises” on the program, this music shudders with a bleakness that one seldom encounters in Debussy, leaving one to wonder whether or not the final words (translated here from the original French) ring with a painful irony:
Christmas! Listen to us,
We don’t have our little shoes:
But give victory to the children of France!
On the more popular side there was an eccentric setting of “Deck the Halls” by James McKelvy, who reworked the rhythm into 7/8 time, and a scat setting by Dwight Okamura of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” composed for Judy Garland to sing in the MGM musical Meet Me in St. Louis by Ralph Blaine. Through these arrangements, one could appreciate the technical skill of the singers in this group, as well as conductor Laney McClain Armstrong’s impeccable sense of balancing the sixteen voices. That balance was all the more impressive in an encore performance of “Silent Night” for which the singers lined the two side walls of the Old First sanctuary space. Even with this radical separation, one could appreciate the delicate texture of what sounded like an eight-part arrangement.