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The Carolina Concert Choir (CCC) is now in its sixth season under the direction of Bradford Gee, and his stewardship has increased the depth of its musicianship and expanded what had been a madrigal group into a concert choir of over 40 auditioned singers. The demand for tickets has increased in line with the quality, and this demand has caused CCC to schedule repeat concerts or to move to larger venues than their home base in Hendersonville’s St. James Episcopal Church. This year, their Holiday Concert was held at the Porter Center for the Performing Arts at Brevard College, which seated a sold-out audience of 700. Added to the musical forces for this program were the eight-member Asheville vocal ensemble Pastyme and a 28-piece orchestra drawn from Hendersonville Symphony Orchestra personnel.
The major work on the program was J.S. Bach’s Magnificat in D (S. 243), into which three appropriate Bach Chorales were interposed. The Latin choral sections were sung by the CCC, the German chorales sung by Pastyme from the balcony over the stage to the right of the tracker organ, and the solos from stage front by various singers drawn from the ranks of the CCC. The Pastyme chorales were uniformly good, with an edge perhaps going to “Freut euch und jubiliert” sung by Pamela Miller, Faye Burner, Jeff Konz and Roberto Flores (half of Pastyme). The Concert Choir was also up to its assignment, even showing superior Latin pronunciation for the most part. Sandie Salvaggio-Walker stood out among the soloists drawn from CCC; some of the other soloists did not have the needed range, while others were unable to negotiate fast passages without lagging the tempo or displaying a pained facial expression.
When Maestro Gee is conducting large forces involving both singers and instrumentalists, his conducting style becomes at times self-conscious. When he cues orchestra members, his body language can be a little stiff and jerky. He does not convey the same nuances in his communications with a full orchestra (using a baton) that he does in his expert handling of choral forces (often without baton). When faced with an a capella choir or a choir with minimal accompaniment he comes into his own as a decidedly superior choral conductor. He is well-known in local choral circles for the efficiency of his use of rehearsal time as well as his direction.
It was a long program, with three settings of “Ave Maria” (Bruckner, Stravinsky and Biebl), the “Magnum Mysterium” of Morten Lauridsen and fifteen carols in three groups. A review can only touch on the highlights, which were the Biebl and the Lauridsen.
In 1964, the noted Austrian choral composer Franz Biebl first composed his “Ave Maria” for a double male choir. The seven-part version for mixed choir that CCC and Pastyme presented has become a favorite in America, and rightly so. Gee chose to assign three parts to Pastyme, the other four to CCC. The three male solos that introduce the three versicles were performed by Pastyme soloists. With Pastyme in its high balcony location over the stage, a third dimension (altitude) was added to give an ethereal effect to the work.
Morten Lauridsen is a mystical composer. It never surprises people to learn that his highly successful career has been in Southern California. Brad Gee clearly has an affinity for Lauridsen, a depth of interpretation that resulted in this conductor at his very best. Gee curled fingers. He cut off one passage by a sudden closing of 4 fingers like a flap. He touched forefinger to thumb. He used his index finger as a baton. And the result was a choir responding with extreme sensitivity, with harmonically rich singing in the performance of the day.
The carols were fine. There are no complaints about the performances. However, they were selections that showed an unfortunate uniformity. Almost all were German or British in origin and British in their arrangements. Seven were composed or arranged by John Rutter. Benjamin Britten, William Walton, David Willcocks, and Ralph Vaughan Williams (all British composers, and fine ones) were responsible for four more. Two arrangements were by Americans Alice Parker and Robert Shaw, while Arvo Pärt of Estonia alone represented the considerable choral tradition of the rest of Europe. Where was the music of France, Spain, Italy, Scandinavia, Russia or the Ukraine? While the Anglican choral tradition is admittedly a powerful one in Christmas music, so is the Eastern Orthodox tradition, with an entire school of 18th and early 19th century Ukrainian composers of note. It would have been pleasant to hear a work or two from Maxim Berezovsky, Dmitri Bortnyansky or others.