Encountering a concert as imaginatively programmed as this makes you wonder why so many resign themselves to the same old boring, predictable holiday music rituals year after year. Leave it to Seattle Pro Musica (SPM) to design a yuletide concert replete with ear-opening discoveries. Billed as Northern Lights, the programme celebrated the winter spirit with a survey of choral music from Scandinavia and the Baltic countries, much of it by contemporary composers.

Chroma © Wes Kim
© Wes Kim

Karen P. Thomas, SPM's artistic director and conductor, culled a generous selection of pieces involving themes of winter, the aurora borealis and other natural wonders, folk music, and Christmas carols traditionally sung in that part of the world (and still untainted by treacly processing for the shopping centre's seasonal soundtrack). Thomas pointed out that although we moderns are able to explain the northern lights in terms of scientific concepts involving electrons and ionospheric resistance, the ancients used poetry, myth, and music to account for the shimmering glow, from images of galloping Valkyries and departed souls to the fires sparked by a magical fox.

"Some seeing it as threatening, others as benign," notes Thomas. "Latvian folklore, for example, tells that the northern lights are the restless spirits of fallen warriors, still fighting their battles in the sky."

Along with its full 80-voice ensemble, Seattle Pro Musica comprises three smaller chamber groups (one of mixed voices, one of women, and one of men), and each of these was given the spotlight at various points, enhancing the programme's variety. Thomas began the concert by positioning the choir across the two levels of the darkened church to chant a pair of traditional Icelandic songs, including a "twin song" whose melody is subjected to spare but dramatically arresting harmonisation.

Indeed, each of the selections offered a unique point of interest, adding up to an intriguing lesson in the vital role choral music has played over the past century in the Baltic countries and Scandinavia, whether in the reawakened passion for folkloric traditions or the outpouring of creativity in the Baltic nations that followed the decades of Soviet repression. 

Marjatta's Christmas Hymn – taken from Einojuhani Rautavaara's choral opera Marjatta, Lowly Maiden – was one of several pieces that evoked the ritualistic power of singing and its connection to the ancient, pagan world of shamanistic visions.

Some pieces showed an innovative use of choral virtuosity, such as the flickering figures of Veljo Tormis's Northern Lights, a piece from the Estonian composer's much larger choral cycle Nature Pictures. It was sung with delightful flair by the women's chamber choir Chroma.

Finnish composer Jaakko Mäntyjärvi's setting of Psalm 150 translates the change-ringing technique for church bells known as grandsire triples into a cappella terms, executed here by the mixed-voice choir Vox, with a trio of female soloists mimicking a seven-tone "row" of bells in ceaseless permutation.

But some of the most touching moments of the evening came with the simplest of techniques, as in the serene use of a two-voice round for Night on Our Earth by Swedish composer Karin Rehnquist or the block chords of Edvard Grieg's setting of Ave Maris Stella

There was unity amid this smörgåsbord, the preparation for which included rehearsing in no fewer than 11 languages. The influence of robust folksong tradition, creatively reassessed from a modern standpoint, proved to be one leitmotif. Another was an appreciation of the choral medium as fully orchestral in its own right, capable of producing the spectrum of textures and colours we expect from a large ensemble of instruments.

Seattle Pro Musica's signature sound overall has a translucent quality, nimble and focused, and tending to place the vocal centre of gravity nearer the middle and upper ranges, with less weight below. Not all of the soloists selected from the ensemble for particular numbers were of the same quality, but the various choirs were all on excellent form, meticulously attentive to phrasing and intonation. With her perfectionist's ear for shaping dynamics, sonic weight, and pacing, Thomas elicited the ways in which each piece uses the chorus to paint and dramatise its respective text. 

A highlight was a recent piece, also called Northern Lights, by Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds. His text intermingles a Latvian folk song explanation of the aurora with the observations of two Arctic explorers from the 19th century marvelling at their first experience of the northern lights. Ešenvalds crafts a unique sense of narrative drama with his evocative choral textures, adding tuned glasses and chimes near the end to wondrous effect. It made for a fascinating contrast with the magical madrigalisms in Tormis's treatment of the same phenomenon.

Thomas closed with a set of Swedish and Latvian Christmas carols (including one in her own arrangement). Recalling a vanished world of traveling masked revellers and touching at times on a note of gentle melancholy, these songs offered a lovely, unusual perspective on the yuletide ritual.