The 22-member chamber choir Harmonia, led by director Robert Pacillo, performed Friday a concert of traditional and contemporary Christmas carols for a sizable audience at St. Bernadette Church in Orchard Park. With a program of entirely a cappella fare, the evening was a welcome and inviting respite from what can sometimes feel like a holiday environment of ever-increasing distractions.
At the beginning of the concert, the listeners were met with Harmonia’s bright and warm sound, which remained throughout the program. The unanimity of the group’s singing was striking, and the individual singers’ dutiful sensitivity to each phrase was completely synchronous. In each musical selection, Pacillo’s conducting was graceful and fluid.
Harmonia has collectively crafted a singular voice typified by a soothing harmonic blend, precise balance of dynamics, and smooth attacks on consonants. The tone of each singer was never forced or overwrought with vibrato.
In Benjamin Britten’s antiphonal work “Hymn to the Virgin,” the group demonstrated these attributes through the engaging use of both the larger ensemble and a smaller quartet that sang in response from the aisle of the sanctuary in St. Bernadette. The first set also included a lovely arrangement of “Away in a Manger,” featuring a variant melody that diverges from the one that has become so ubiquitous during the holidays.
Up until the sprightly French carol “Il Est Né, le Divin Enfant (He Is Born the Child Divine),” the evening’s selections had consisted almost entirely of slower tempi. The buoyant rhythm and joyous tunefulness made for an inspired change of pace.
For “The First Noel,” the singers were no longer divided strictly by voice part; instead, women and men were interspersed evenly in alternating pairs. This logistical choice yielded profound results: The voices were suddenly more closely knit, and the blend was seamless.
The sopranos – previously a bit too prominent in the mix – now topped out at just the right volume, allowing the synergistic harmonies of the inner voice parts to truly complement the brilliantly executed melody. The bass’ presence, once little more than perceptible, now popped with vibrancy.
The evening faltered briefly after the intermission with an arrangement of the Carpenters’ “Merry Christmas, Darling” featuring five male singers and a vocal percussionist. The harmonies were silken, but the song felt unmoored by the lack of a strong, anchoring bass line and subsequent (though slight) intonation issues.
Perhaps the most unconventional selection was Jackson Hill’s “In Winter’s Keeping,” a work that invoked the unyielding change of the seasons with a quality that was simultaneously beautiful and destabilizing.
For its cycle of “The Alfred Burt Carols,” Harmonia returned to the “scattered formation” seen during “The First Noel” with similar sonic returns – greater dynamic control and even more rhythmic cohesion. It led me to wonder why Pacillo did not arrange his ensemble in this manner for each and every song, particularly during the concert’s first half.
The harmonic ensemble’s pinpoint rhythmic prowess – one of its most formidable assets – was on full display in the Catalan carol “Fum, Fum, Fum.”
As evidenced by a hearty standing ovation from those assembled at St. Bernadette, Harmonia’s appropriately titled “This Is Christmas Time” concert was an ideal evocation of the spirit of the season, brought home all the more effectively by the vocal ensemble’s supreme musical conscientiousness.
Harmonia performs its Christmas program again at 3 p.m. today at St. Joseph University Church in Buffalo.