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The holiday concerts of the Choral Society of Durham under the direction of Rodney Wynkoop, given in Duke Chapel, full of poinsettias and exquisitely carved figures of the season, are very special events. The carillon high above plays familiar carols as you approach and depart the awesome Gothic structure. The sun still fills the windows with glorious colors as the concert begins at 4:00 on Sunday afternoon. For as long as I can remember, even back when the dailies and the weeklies had classical concert reviews in most editions, this was the concert frequently chosen as the best choral performance of the year, the one not to be missed. I neither saw nor heard any reason for this accolade to be any different this year.
The program opened with Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s Midnight Mass for Christmas, based on ten carols that were familiar to listeners in his day, near the end of the 17th century. Even though those carols do not sound so familiar to modern ears, the charm and lilt of Charpentier’s clever setting survives the three-hundred-year journey to our ears. With a superb instrumental chamber ensemble and members of the choir singing solo and duet passages, and mostly with Wynkoop’s magic (i.e., skill and hard work), this near-150 voice choir sang with the lightness and precision of an intimate grouping. The Midnight Mass for Christmas was, not coincidentally, a reprise of the first concert Wynkoop conducted with the chorus 21 years ago.
In celebration of that anniversary the Choral Society commissioned American composer Steven Sametz to compose a new work in honor of this fruitful partnership. In looking over the names in the program, it is my impression that a least half of the singers in the performance have been members of the chorus for all twenty years. Wynkoop chose as the text a passage from Algernon Charles Swinburne’s Songs Before Sunrise. The poetry speaks of stars and light, birth and rebirth, angels and peace.
The music of Part I of "Thou Whose Birth" begins with a first inversion F-sharp major chord (A on the bottom, C-sharp and F-sharp above) sung by the sopranos and altos. In three measures the chord resolves and is picked up in the second phrase as a G-major triad by the tenors and basses. It is an utterly unexpected and jaw-dropping sound. There were many such surprises throughout the piece, which was described in the program as “an anthem in two parts.” Part I opened the second half of the program and Part II concluded the evening. The experience of hearing this music was for me like a dream: I am flying effortlessly, up over the clouds. I decide to lie down on a cloud to rest. An angel (in this instance soprano Kristen Blackman) takes me by the hand and, as we fly together, pacem! I behold all the battlefields of all the wars of all the nations on earth flush with green grass and wildflowers and flowering pear trees and I am overwhelmed with peace....
The rest of the concert included the transcendent carol by Gustaf Nordqvist, “Strålande jul” ("Radiant Yule"), one of my absolute favorites. Robert Ward’s gorgeous creation “That wondrous night of Christmas Eve” — he wrote the words and the music — was sung by the Chamber Choir. The sine qua non of any Christmas celebration, Joseph Mohr's and Franz Gruber’s “Stille Nacht,” was sung in a lovely setting arranged by Ian Humphris.
Waldo Beach was one of the founding members of the Choral Society and Professor of Christian Ethics at Duke Divinity School. Each Christmas for many years he composed a hymn setting of a favorite piece of poetry. On this occasion, we heard his earthy setting of “Chill of the Nightfall” by Timothy Dudley-Smith.
When I saw Adolphe Adam’s “O holy night” on the program, I had a bit of a cringe. Often abused by bad (really bad) sopranos and choral arrangers who seem to think of this poem as a battle hymn to end in triumphant bombast, I feared for the worst. However, the arrangement by Michael L Meyer, the Choral Society’s Assistant to the Conductor, modernized and enriched the harmony of Adam’s tune, added some very nice counterpoint, and ended with a reverent “night divine.” It was actually very nice.
The concert concluded with Part II of "Thou whose birth” (Dona nobis pacem), and I was lifted to the clouds again by Steven Sametz and Rodney Wynkoop and Kristen Blackman and the Choral Society of Durham, and believed that Peace on Earth might actually be possible — someday.