The “Carolina Christmas” program presented by the Hendersonville Symphony Orchestra and the Greenville Chorale on Saturday, December 15 demonstrated that audience participation and good taste are compatible, that fun and fine music can coexist, but most of all it demonstrated that good arrangers are an inadequately celebrated part of successful popular programming. For the second year in a row, the South Carolina-based chorale led by Bingham Vick, Jr. joined with the North Carolina-based HSO led by Thomas Joiner in a successful and sumptuous pair of seasonal events, Friday in Greenville’s Peace Center Auditorium and Saturday in Hendersonville’s Mud Creek Baptist Church.
Vick and Joiner are faculty colleagues at Furman University, and their complementary talents as conductors of choral and orchestral ensembles were put to use during the program. The podium was swapped according to the needs of the moment. When the choral forces of his Chorale (an extremely well-balanced ensemble with 150-plus singers in eight sections) were dominant, Maestro Vick was there. When the orchestral forces (65+ instrumentalists) were featured, Maestro Joiner replaced him. They traded “high-fives” each time they passed each other to and from the podium.
Interspersed with showcase seasonal pieces and medleys of carols were a few outstanding choral moments of the highest musicality. The high level of the afternoon’s music was established immediately during the first work: the Prologue from Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Hodie,” a divine example of the best music of the Anglican religious tradition extended into 20th Century compositional vocabulary. The Chorale under excellent direction managed the abrupt dynamic changes and seemed appropriately joyful.
A second high point came soon after in Michael Fink’s “What Sweeter Music,” accompanied by guitar and triangle. Perhaps because of the quiet nature of the piece and its unfamiliarity to some who came to hear carols, it was underappreciated by the audience, who applauded perfunctorily when they should have been ecstatic.
The third high point was the Franz Biebl “Ave Maria.” This 1964 work by the noted Austrian choral composer was originally written for a double male choir of firemen. Biebl later arranged a seven-part version for mixed choir. The Cornell University Glee Club introduced the work to America, where it has been very well received. Conducting without a baton, Vick commanded rapt attention from a choir that provided three excellent male soloists (bass, tenor and countertenor) to introduce the three versicles. This a capella masterpiece was worth the entire admission.
But I said above that good arrangers are an inadequately celebrated feature of popular orchestral programming. Arthur Harris and Robert Russell Bennett are examples. Maestro Joiner reminisced about hearing, during childhood, a recording of the Arthur Harris Medley of Well-Known Carols performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy. The Harris medley has some slightly corny modulations that remind the listener of slick movie music. But we should not forget that Sergei Prokofiev and Vladimir Dukelsky (Vernon Duke) were also a little slick-sounding in some of their movie scores. Slick is not always bad.
The last full set of carols was a suite arranged by Robert Shaw and Robert Russell Bennett, two excellent popularizers who never laid aside their dedication to quality. Let’s give a holiday salute to Bennett, who orchestrated for Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern and Richard Rodgers, was responsible for the film scores for Show Boat, Oklahoma, South Pacific, and The King and I, and still had time to sit down with noted choral conductor Robert Shaw and produce The Many Moods of Christmas, Suite IV for our holiday pleasure. It was a pleasure to hear this music in good hands.
Two examples of the skill of John Rutter as arranger were also on the program: “Christmas Lullaby” and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” The latter work concludes with a thoroughly baroque set of whimsical final cadences that sent a pleased audience out into Hendersonville’s wintry evening thinking of sugarplums.