The exquisite vocal ensemble Quire of Voyces — attached to SBCC but not entirely of SBCC — will offer its annual holiday program called, as always, “The Mysteries of Christmas” at 7 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday in St. Anthony’s Chapel at the Garden Street Academy, 2300 Garden St. in Santa Barbara.

Richard Rodney Bennett has written both masses and motion picture scores.

Richard Rodney Bennett has written both masses and motion picture scores.

Nathan Kreitzer, founder and artistic director of the Quire, will lead the group. According to Kreitzer, the program will “include motets by Palestrina, a modern mass by Richard Rodney Bennett, and new works by [the Quire’s composer-in-residence] Michael Eglin.”

Kreitzer and I have not discussed this, but I rather suspect that the unchanging title of this holiday program comes from “O Magnum Mysterium,” a responsorial chant from the Matins of Christmas. Here it is in English:

O great mystery,
and wonderful sacrament,
that animals should see the newborn Lord,
lying in a manger!
Blessed is the Virgin whose womb
was worthy to bear
Christ the Lord.

A prodigious number of composers have set the Latin text, including William Byrd, Tomas Luis de Victoria, Andrea Gabrieli, Giovanni Pierluigi Sante (Palestrina), François Poulenc, Judith Bingham, John Harbison, Frank La Rocca, Jaakko Mäntyjärvi, Pierre Villette, Cristóbal de Morales, Morten Lauridsen and David Bennett Thomas.

There is a Palestrina motet on the program, and Palestrina wrote a gorgeous motet setting “O Magnum Mysterium” for six-part choir, so I would not be completely surprised to hear the Quire sing it in this concert.

Palestrina is both a great composer and an archetype, a role model for reactionary composers. His music is sublime, but his reputation as the chief savior of polyphony during the Counter-Reformation rests more on legend and propaganda than on deeds. It’s hard to sort this out without getting into a religious, even theological, hassle. Hans Pfitzner’s marvelous opera, Palestrina, is lovely to listen to, but not much help in the information department — and, of course, it doesn’t contain one note of Palestrina’s music.

Bennett, knighted in 1998, is probably best-known in America for his film and television scores — including a Dr. Who episode, as well as such box-office hits as Far from the Madding Crowd, Nicholas and Alexandra and Murder on the Orient Express — but he is also a prolific composer of beautifully crafted works for the concert hall and opera. He set a Missa Brevis in 1990.

And Eglin seems rather young to be such a force to be reckoned with, but that is often the way it works in music. Any composer who has studied with both Bill Kraft and Alex Planchart is bound to turn out all right, in my book. Eglin teaches at SBCC and is, as I mentioned, composer in residence for the Quire.

Tickets to the “Mysteries of Christmas” are $20 for general admission, and $15 for students and seniors, and can be purchased at the door or from the Garvin Theater box office at 805.965.5935. (Due to the popularity of their performances, the Quire recommends that you call ahead, for reservations.)

— Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributor.