In making its California debut Sunday afternoon under Da Camera Society auspices, the vocal ensemble The Sixteen must have surprised very few with its elegance and precision--this is a British choir, after all. But it would have been difficult to predict how deeply satisfying its program of Christmas carols would become.
Conductor Harry Christophers had constructed a wide-ranging agenda of music from the 15th Century to the present, grouped and contrasted skillfully. The knot that tied it all together was the supremely communicative singing.
A work like Jean Mouton’s tightly woven, chant-driven “Nesciens mater” (from the early 16th Century) emerged not as some exercise in arid authenticity, but as lyrical, euphonious, expressively nuanced poetry. Rather than a quaintly lulling “Greensleeves,” a jaunty, solo, drinking-song version was offered, sung in the accent of a peasant farmer.
The concert, too, unearthed a number of musical gems, like Peter Maxwell Davies’ “Haylle, comly and clene,” a rhythmical Renaissance dance of dissonance, and John Tavener’s “The Lamb,” which quirkily abuts atonal chant with tonal hymn. And then there were the disarming simplicities of such works as “Quem pastores laudavere,” an anonymous 15th-Century German carol, and Holst’s “In the bleak midwinter,” both rendered in glowing colors.
Works by Walton and Tallis, Howells and Traditional also were part of the rich continuum. One became convinced, however, that this 16-member ensemble (including conductor and lutenist), with its poised balance of rich, grainy basses, male altos and female sopranos, could have made the phone book enthralling. The packed house at the First Congregational Church of Los Angeles seemed to agree.