Forms of culture swell and luxuriate through long cycles, until overgrowth obscures the original stock, and then backlashes of reform attempt to separate the essential from the inessential. The Protestant Reformation stimulated a Puritanical and pared-down aesthetic that can be heard in early American song. Adelfos’s spring concert Sweet Canaan: Anglo-American Folk Hymns and Songs had all the cleansing effect of stepping into an open meadow, or a Zen garden. Simple melodic lines, unison singing, repetition, and primitive harmonic intervals in 4ths and 5ths were dominant features in a program of William Billings, Shaker tunes, Sacred Harp singing, and American folksong. And, brilliantly, the concert took place in the First Congregational Church, with its unadorned colonial interior, whitewash walls, simple paneling and beams, hardwood floors, and an absence of nearly all imagery (there is one painting of an angel, and a brass cross against a solid burgundy altar wall.) This is not a cavernous venue with folds of lush reverb to cozy the singers and knit the raveled sleeve of error. To the contrary, the sound is crisp, live, and immediate. Nor does Adelfos — a trim ensemble of 18 singers — lean on safety in numbers. But within its ranks are some of the finest and most experienced choristers in Santa Barbara, and that fact makes all the difference, and made possible the pleasures of this performance.
Stark unison and sizzling 5ths opened the program with title piece Sweet Canaan, derived from Benjamin Franklin White and Elisha J. King’s 1844 song book The Sacred Harp. This is a prime source for “shape note” singing, a teaching method utilizing a simplified solfege (associating scale tones with primitive syllables). Adelfos incorporated a demonstration into Leonard P. Breedlove’s “I’m Going Home,” the first chorus sung entirely on fa, so, la, and mi. William Billings (1746—1800) was well represented, his three settings from the erotic Song of Solomon was a concert highlight, and a fitting springtime frolic. Shaker tunes, too, were approached in traditional arrangements for soloist or unison chorus. Mother Ann’s Song was comprised entirely of the “revealed” heavenly syllables, Lo lodle lo, the language of the angels.
But the program also featured notable, and more recent, arrangements. Kevin Siegfried’s haunting setting of “Lay me low” saturates the repeated entreaty with restless dissonance. Three hymns set by Alice Parker included the rousing anthem “Hark, I Hear the Harps Eternal.” The most adventurous arrangement of the evening was American composer and UCSB professor emeritus Emma Lou Diemer’s take on “She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain,” with key changes and chromatics, syncopated rhythms of train wheels and soprano shrilling whistles. Finally, Santa Barbara legend Phyllis E. Zimmerman (who passed away last year) was represented with arrangements of Stephen Foster’s “Gentle Annie” and the Shaker tune “Simple Gifts,” which seemed to summarize this concert perfectly: rooted in simplicity and flourishing in delight.