Friday's program under guest conductor Paul French gave the audience everything it could ask: an intriguing mix of styles and periods plus precise and sensitive choral singing.
Three 16th Century carols opened the program. Jacob Handl's "Resonet in laudibus" promptly displayed one of this choir's strong pointsits ability to switch instantly from a ringing forte to a veiled pianissimo.
Hans Leo Hassler's "Dixit Maria ad Angelum" grew from a melodic seed into a happy fugal romp; the chorus keeping its interweaving lines alive and clear.
Christopher Tye's "A Sound of Angels" was a pleasant puzzle; his dates are given as 1472-1572, but the piece, with its steady beat and vertically harmonized sound, could have been written in the early 1900s.
It made a convenient bridge to the music of seven 19th- and 20th-Century composers. Chrysogonus Waddell's "Rosa Mystica," on a 16th Century English text, had a convincingly spiritual quality; the sound rose as effortlessly as smoke. The choir gave it the depth and gentleness of a string choir. The lullaby "Ninna Nanna," by Melchiorre Mauro-Cottone (1901-1975), featured Joh Vorrasi's bright, lithe tenor. With some changes in the text, it could have been a passionate Italian serenade.
An organ solo "L'Adorazione dei Pastori" by Bonaventura Somma (1893-1960) was a pleasure; a mild, happy tune. Thomas Weisflog, as usual, played it beautifully.
Rachmaninoff's "Bogoroditse Devo" ("Maiden, Mother of the Lord") had the warm Rachmaninoff texture, rich as Russian soup, with the basses sounding more profound than usual.
Leo Sowerby's "Now There Lightens Upon Us" showed the Chicago master's rich harmonic palette and feel for choral sound. Stephen Hartman's harp gave added tang to "A la Nanita Nana," a traditional Spanish carol arranged by Ferris, Sowerby's student.
Stephen Paulus' "Jesu Carols" is a charmer; quaint texts from 15th Century England illuminated by bright, wry choral harmonies and playful skittering from harp and percussion. As a composer, Paulus seems to be on the same wavelength as Benjamin Britten.
After a more traditional set of carols like "Ding Dong Merrily on High", the concert ended with the premiere performance of French's "Gloucestershire Wassail." He let the festive tune stand pretty much on its own, with prankish comments from timpani, nells, harp and organ. It was a fine windup to an exhilarating concert.