Canterbury Choral Society's Sunday performance of “Canterbury Christmas” was a gala event. Centerpiece of Canterbury's 45th “Sapphire” season, the evening brought together the talents of the Oklahoma City University's Faculty Brass Quintet, harpist Gaye LeBlanc, Janey Illgen on oboe, the multifaceted John L. Edwards on organ, and the Chorale from the Canterbury Youth Choruses, among other talented musicians.
Conductor Randi Von Ellefson narrated the program, offering history and context. Most importantly, Von Ellefson led the Canterbury Choral Society singers in a rich and varied program of sacred seasonal music that spanned centuries, from the early medieval texts of Britten's “A Ceremony of Carols” to the world premiere of a piece by Oklahoma native David Janssen.
Familiar carols appeared in new settings or in unexpected time signatures. The brass quintet, at times permitted to overshadow the choir, gave a somewhat military sound to “A Christmas Flourish” by R.A. Bass; the piece is a medley of carols including a lovely blending of the German and English texts of “Silent Night.” Five movements of the Britten composition, sung by the women of Canterbury in Britten's original scoring for three treble parts and harp, were accompanied by LeBlanc. The clarity and precision of harp and voices lifted these Middle English texts cleanly out into the hall.
The smooth blend of voices is a signature of Canterbury's work, and it was evident throughout the evening. The performance of two of the three “Nativity Carols” by Stephen Paulus was made more moving by Van Ellefson's note that Paulus had suffered a stroke last summer and was still in coma.
“The Shepherds and the Angels in the Field,” the extremely challenging new piece by Janssen, needs a band of voices as talented and disciplined as Canterbury. This slightly spooky piece, with time changes and careful dissonances, evokes that night in the hills of Palestine when a mystical event brought herdsmen in to town to seek a child. With texts from Ephesians and Luke, the voices of angels could be heard in the Civic Center Music Hall. Janssen, who lives in Boston, was present to hear the first public performance of his work, and took a well-deserved bow.
The performance of the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel's “Messiah” was received appropriately, with the audience standing as tradition requires. Canterbury performed the work brilliantly, with an added element of fun.
The Canterbury Youth Choruses Chorale, conducted by Judith Willoughby and intern Joshua Hughes, performed a Slovak lullaby and the Paul Caldwell arrangement of “Go Where I Send Thee.” These young voices are clearly making joyful noise and doing so with great beauty.
After an audience singalong, the singers of the Chorale moved into the house to surround the audience with “Peace, Peace.” This gently touching combination of two carols was accompanied by a sign language interpretation that added to its overall beauty.
As if the evening of exquisite musical performance were not enough, the singers of Canterbury had baked more than 150 dozen cookies of all kinds to share with the audience in the foyer after the concert, bringing a sweet end to a delightful evening of music.