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The printed program was nestled within a greeting card. A full moon shone through a great round window, and the sound of choristers gently wafted above us from the rear of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship Hall — a warm welcome on a cold wintry night. Triangle Gay Men’s Chorus, directed by John-Phillip Mullinax, presented a program of seasonal anthems, spirituals and classics, the first concert of the 2008-09 A Peaceable Season.
With a focus on eliminating communication barriers, eyes on the conductor and out of those pesky black splotches of printed music, widely spaced arrangement of the chorus coupled with immaculate attention to detail, this chorus delivered their message with aplomb.
Mullinax, whose interest is strongly driven by the text, conducts with a clean, articulate hand, coaxing a deliciously blended sound from the chamber-sized ensemble. “Tree of Peace,” for example, with words and music by Gwyneth Walker, and adapted from the abolitionist /poet John Greenleaf Whittier’s 1848 text, “O Brother Man,” was moving — not just for the hushed text "listen to one another" — but the shimmering inner harmonies. As Mullinax said in conversation, the chorus was “beautifully light.”
There were other shining moments. Traditional spiritual “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning,” arranged by Jay Althouse, and accompanied by a simple hand drum, was perfectly tuned and balanced. Kevin Tillman’s solo was sweet and restrained. A second piece by Althouse, “Look Up Children” sung a cappella, was equally lovely. Soloist Edward Farmer sang with grace and assurance. But if I were to ask the members of the chorus about their favorite, it might have been “Stars I Shall Find” (Teasdale/ Johnson). With eyes gazing heavenward yielding more of the bottom sound, and sensitively rendered, the chorus was brilliant.
Adding a dash of humor — an irreverent version of G.F. Handel’s "Hallelujah Chorus" from the oratorio Messiah might have raised a smile from the great master. And Chuck Birdwell’s arrangement, “Nutcracker Jingles” evoked laughter throughout the house with witty quotations and corny musical jokes. Resisting the temptation to cut loose, however, they remarkably maintained a disciplined voice.
Joe Lupton undergirded the chorus with fine piano collaboration. The Bach/Gounod “Ave Maria” (arr. Albritton) was particularly nice; but for my taste, the instrument was a little too present for the size of the chorus. Otherwise, his performance was top-notch.
In the end, TGMC can chalk this up as a success! And after many musical accomplishments, Mullinax, a native North Carolinian who found his way back home, has the stuff to develop something wonderful. I’m looking forward to watching this group grow under his artistic direction. Let’s cross our fingers that he stays awhile!