Conductor and Artistic Director Jo Anne Wasserman with Santa Barbara Choral Society and orchestra, following their performance at First Presbyterian Church on April 15, 2022. | Credit: Zach Mendez

As a literal expression and example of a mass of voices projecting a singular musical vision, live choral music seems especially cathartic as we make our hopeful-if-wary way out of the worst of the pandemic. Santa Barbara is lucky to have a bold proponent of the form in the Santa Barbara Choral Society (SBCS), whose spring concert last weekend at the First Presbyterian Church, with full orchestra in tow, conveyed healing power, sonorous glory, and multi-layered poetry.

Bearing the title Pax + Amare / Peace + Love, the concert served up a refreshingly distinctive French/British program of Maurice Duruflé’s masterful mid-20th-century Requiem and Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Five Mystical Songs. Overall, the concert imbued qualities of vernal renewal and reverential requiem, in the time of COVID and the ongoing Ukrainian tragedy.

An impressive and dedicated choral ensemble, SBCS has been led by JoAnne Wasserman for a good three decades now and is on the brink of next year’s 75th anniversary (seemingly a magic number in the 805, given the Music Academy of the West’s 75th b-day this summer, and the Ojai Music Festival’s 75th last year).

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The Presbyterian Church was a more-than-fitting setting for one of the finest 20th century requiems, in this magnificent and recently renovated Santa Barbara 20th-century church landmark. At dusk on Saturday evening, the light filtered into the sanctuary through stained glass windows as the ensemble, with Latvian baritone Valdis Jansons as soloist, unveiled the Duruflé opus. Based on Gregorian chant sources but with a clearly modern touch, the music itself possesses a relative light atmosphere compared to heavier early models by Mozart, Verdi, and Brahms, flecked with post-impressionist qualities and harmonies.

The religious/spiritual palette shifts with Williams’s pleasant enough Five Mystical Songs, a rich showcase for Jansons’s supple vocal gifts here. The English composer was agnostic but based this work on texts by priest/poet George Herbert — work which, incidentally, was referenced in Sunday morning’s sermon by the church’s new pastor, Ann Conklin.

For encores, Wasserman called on the timely hymn “Prayer for Ukraine” and Mozart’s brief, entrancing “Ave Verum Corpus,” leaving a lingering contemplative beauty in the mind/heart. 

Santa Barbara Choral Society with soloist Valdis Jansons and orchestra, performing Vaughan Williams’ Five Mystical Songs on April 15, 2022. | Credit: Zach Mendez

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