BAR HARBOR — Once again, the Acadia Choral Society is making a wonderful contribution to Christmas spirit here on Mount Desert Island with the lovely winter concert “Hodie,” which Director Daniel Pyle explained is Latin for “today.”
That theme, which was also in the title and text of several of the songs on the program seemed amazingly apt, as it’s easy for minor annoyances and stresses to add up to not-so-fun “todays.”
As I settled into my seat at the magnificent St. Saviour’s Church, I have to confess I was feeling rather combative, as in “I dare you to lift this foul mood.”
Well, they did.
It all began with a brief plainchant from the 10th century. Imagine, at the time this joyful musical chant celebrating the birth of Christ was composed, the Mayan civilization was collapsing, Vikings invaded France, the Ming dynasty was forming and Otto the Great ruled the Holy Roman Empire.
Rather miraculously this little scrap of song found its way through all that time, space and turmoil of the Dark Ages to this wintery afternoon in Bar Harbor some 1,000 years later. Wow.
This historical wonderment and the spiritual mysteries pondered in it really put my problems with dog hair on the sofa into perspective.
The second piece, “Hodie Cristus Natus Est” only deepened that sense of awe. Here was Marsha Lyons singing, as she has for some 30 years with this group, in her clear, lilting soprano, the words and notes Giovanni da Palestrina wrote for some other soprano in renaissance Italy some 500 years ago. She was backed by a host of her friends and neighbors in the choir and the excellent Acadia Brass Ensemble and organist Kimberly Haller.
Other fine solo work was performed by another superb soprano and choral veteran Susan Dwyer and by the spine-tingling tenor of David Witham.
Pyle selected many 16th century pieces for this concert, and it seemed that these early composers (Hassler, Sweelinck and Scheidt, for example) were largely inspired by the mystery of the holy birth; their works have a haunting quality to them that put us in a more contemplative than celebratory mood.
The second half started with several more familiar 20th century pieces including the sweet “Bring a Torch Jeanette, Isabella” and the happy “Sing We Now of Christmas,” and closed with Daniel Pinkham’s thrilling 20th century “Christmas Cantata,” which managed to merge the joy and mystery of the nativity in three glorious movements.
Haller’s accompaniment of the cantata on the organ was astonishing. At times she made the massive instrument sound like the tinkling chimes of a celesta, then a wailing bagpipe and at one point a rumbling didgeridoo.
The chorus deftly managed almost all of the dynamics and harmonics of the pieces they were challenged with, despite being somewhat smaller than past concerts, with what seemed a dearth of male voices. But the men who were there certainly held their own, never letting the strong sopranos and altos overwhelm them.
This year the choir performed back in the chancel area of the church rather than on risers. The change meant some of the power and intimacy of the voices was lost by not having them sing closer to us, yet it also seemed historically correct.
Then again, we got to see the singers up close and personal at the concert’s end, when they drifted into the audience for the annual carol singing.
Pyle explained he had chosen to have us sing all the verses of “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” because he felt they were so apropos for our times, and I have to agree, especially the third verse which reads in part: “And man at war with man hears not the love song which they bring; O hush the noise, ye men of strife, and hear the angels sing.”
Good advice for today and every day.
There’s still time to see “Hodie;” a final performance is planned for Sunday, Dec. 15 at 3 p.m. at St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Ellsworth. Visit acadiachoralsociety.com.