Local audiences know the Ragazzi Boys Chorus from whenever such a group is needed for a choral work that somebody is putting on: Orff’s “Carmina Burana,” for example. The group is always reliable and delightful.

What they may not know is that Ragazzi has an extensive life of its own. There was special appeal in its holiday concert this year, which I heard last Sunday at the First Presbyterian Church of Burlingame (It’s repeated 4 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 10 at the Old First Presbyterian Church at Van Ness Avenue and Sacramento Street in San Francisco).

Artistic director Joyce Keil picked five out of innumerable modern settings of the Gregorian chant “Ubi Caritas,” which means “Where there is love, God is there.” These and a number of other warm choral pieces on the theme of universal love, not all of them from the Christian tradition, were performed by four separate Ragazzi choirs, plus a fifth which is a subset of the most senior group. Conducting and assistant conducting were performed by Keil, Kent Jue and Jesse Buddington, with a special appearance by Ragazzi Premiere, the youngest group of the four, directed by Kaori Nakano DeNoia.

Ragazzi ranges from these small boys up through high school, so we heard everything from boy sopranos through to young mature men’s voices, often in combination to make a multi-layered treat. Many were unaccompanied; others had piano, organ or hand drum.

Every piece, no matter what language it was in, was memorized by all the singers. In a few slower pieces, intonation was slightly wobbly, and in a few other places where the singers were instructed to move or sway they had a little trouble singing at the same time. But for the most part, this was beautiful and impressive work.

The five settings of “Ubi Caritas,” scattered throughout the program, were all beautiful and grew increasingly interesting as they went along. Victor Johnson’s, sung by the young Avanti group, accompanied by piano, gave a slight canonic touch to the material. The version by Maurice Duruflé, the great French organist, sung by the Concert Group and the selected Choral Scholars, was more harmonic and melodic. The same performers gave one by Josu Elberdin which filled the church with its volume and astringent harmony. The oldest group, the Young Men’s Ensemble, sang one by Ola Gjeilo, a Norwegian who’s one of the most popular choral composers around today. His was soothing and subtly complex. The concert ended with all the Ragazzi groups gathered together to perform the Canadian composer Paul Halley’s fantastically complex setting, incorporating African chant (Yoruba and Egyptian) in counterpoint to the Gregorian hymn, with African hand drums joining the piano in accompaniment. It was a glorious conclusion.

Other highlights included anthems by two of the great English Renaissance composers, William Byrd and Thomas Tallis, Another pair of pieces — along with Halley’s African — explored the theme of universal love in non-Christian traditions in their original languages: “Raghupati Raghav,” a Hindu devotional song, sung by the Concert Group and Choral Scholars with full-bodied solo interjections, to an elaborate Indian accompaniment; and “Zikr,” an Islamic chant in Urdu by the noted composer A.R. Rahman, sung by the Young Men’s Ensemble, featuring fast rhythms and bent notes, to the beat of a hand drum.

An intended singalong of religious Christmas carols worked less well. A heavy hand on the organ made it throb as if this were a religious service rather than a choral concert with religious music in it, and the arrangements for the chorus were too complex to leave the audience at ease singing along.

Overall, though, this was a great hour and a half of spiritually uplifting music.

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