For some Anglophiles, the Advent season is not complete without gray skies, Gothic architecture and the hearing of Lessons-and-Carols. Any Angelenos who fit that description but hadn't already left for London were in luck Sunday as the Da Camera Society of Mount St. Mary's College's Chamber Music in Historic Sites series (with the help of Mother Nature) presented an afternoon of all three.
Actor Patrick Macnee of "Avengers" fame was on hand to read the Lessons, and Musica Humana Oxford (a nine-member ensemble from England) was in town to sing the Carols. The cavernous main sanctuary of Immanuel Presbyterian Church provided the Gothic setting.
The concert began according to tradition with "Once in royal David's city." The first verse was sung in full, clear voice by soloist Amy Haworth. The other eight members of Musica Humana Oxford joined in for the next two verses, and then organist Edward Murray -- along with the whole congregation -- entered for the finale.
The program did slightly veer from the standard format that started at King's College, Cambridge, back in 1918 and has continued each year since. Macnee read only seven Lessons (instead of the traditional nine), which gave Musica Humana Oxford an excuse to add a few extra Carols. Nobody in the audience seemed to object.
The group sang three Lesson-and-Carol staples: "The Three Kings," "Bethlehem Down" and "Adam lay ybounden." It was in these Victorian pieces that Musica Humana Oxford seemed most at ease. A more contemporary carol by John Tavener, set to Blake's famous "The Lamb," challenged the group with some intricate, almost atonal, dissonance, but the young singers still delivered a fine, if not effortless, interpretation.
Throughout the 22 songs, Musica Humana Oxford's phrasing was precise but never mannered. The two sopranos were particularly strong, especially in "O viridissima virga," a gorgeous 12th century carol by Hildegard von Bingen. The ensemble's voices blended smoothly without ever sounding homogenous.
The members of Musica Humana Oxford and their director, Dana T. Marsh, are specialists in early music, so it was not surprising that the most impressive selection was a 16th century carol by Nicholas Gombert. The "Magnificat's" inventive counterpoint provided an excellent showpiece for the group's technical proficiency, but more impressive was the singers' ability to infuse the piece with real emotion, making the passage from Luke both pleasing to the ear and satisfying to the soul.