Handel's "Messiah" is everywhere at this time of year, a good thing. Special, too, is the chance to sample alternative sources of "Comfort and Joy" -- the name of this weekend's program at Mission Santa Clara, where the Santa Clara Chorale is jubilantly embracing seasonal masterworks by C.P.E. Bach and Charpentier.
The 80-voice community choir, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in the spring, has a guest leader on the podium: Charlene Archibeque, the choral conducting guru who taught for 35 years at San Jose State University. At Friday's performance (the program repeats Sunday afternoon), she shaped those voices into a big unified sound, which flew through the Mission in waves as the Chorale began its performance of the junior Bach's "Magnificat."
In their time, it's often pointed out, C.P.E. -- whose music is a bridge from the Baroque to Classical periods -- actually was better known than his father. The younger Bach's "Magnificat," composed in 1749, a year before the senior Bach's passing, is lyric and triumphal: Trumpets! Drums! The Jubilate Baroque Orchestra, also part of this program, surged alongside the singers to terrific effect in this historic venue, decked out for Christmas.
Archibeque has assembled a fine cast of soloists. Soprano Sandra Bengochea brought aria-like warmth to "Quia respexit humilitatem" ("He hath regarded the low estate"), a lilting number suffused with ornamentation. Baritone Krassen Karagiozov delivered "Fecit
But if I were to vote for a favorite moment or two, I'd choose the choir: "Et misericordia" ("Mercy") was opulently blended, and ached with feeling. The "Gloria" was propelled; true animation in this celebratory movement. The choir lost its focus during the extended fugal workout of "Sicut erat" ("That ever shall be"), which concludes the work. (Mozart borrowed some of this movement's themes for the Kyrie of his "Requiem.") Still, this was an impressive performance.
After intermission, Archibeque and her musicians turned to Charpentier's "Messe de Minuit pour Noël" ("Midnight Mass for Christmas"), composed around 1690 and awash with painterly touches -- always just the right chords to capture moments of pathos or jubilance. Also, it's filled with hit tunes: In each portion of the liturgy, Charpentier tucks in one or more popular Christmas melodies of the time. (In France, many of these carols, known as "noels," are still widely sung.)
Bengochea was lustrous here, at times joined in duet by another bright-voiced soprano, Maria Cammisa. Thorsett was exceptional: ease of delivery, gorgeous tone, and with a powerful thrust to his phrasing, exploding out of his upper register. And yet -- it's time to vote again -- let's give No. 1 credit to the chorus. Its "Sanctus" was swinging and spirited. No real surprise; Archibeque has a way with choirs. In her days leading San Jose State's Choraliers, she and her singers won seven international competitions.
When Charpentier was finished, Archibeque turned to the audience: "And now's the moment you've been waiting for," she said. "You get to sing."
Together, audience and Chorale sang "O Come, All Ye Faithful" and "The First Noel." The program ended with "As It Fell Upon a Night," another English carol, fancifully arranged by Katherine K. Davis and lovingly performed (sans audience) by the Santa Clara Chorale.
Santa Clara Chorale
Charlene Archibeque, guest conductor
When: 4 p.m. Sunday
Where: Mission Santa Clara, Santa Clara University, 500 El Camino Real, Santa Clara University
Tickets: $25 general, $20 seniors (and Santa Clara University faculty and staff), $10 students, $5 ages 18 and under; 408-883-4722, www.scc.org/tickets