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The capital's Christmas parade is over, the merchants are hawking their wares, and Nutcrackers, Messiahs, and holiday pops concerts are all the rage. Things got into full swing the weekend after Thanksgiving as several local orchestras, including the city's own Raleigh Symphony Orchestra, did what arts organizations do at this time of year, which is making hay whilst the sun shineth. The RSO's preferred venue is Jones Auditorium, the Meredith College hall that offers good acoustics, thanks in part to the placement of the front rows of the ensemble's strings in the hall, forward of the proscenium arch. This gives our community orchestra an unusually rich and full sound with, generally, superior balance among the sections. That was certainly the case during this short matinee concert, presented on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, when the RSO's Music Director, Alan Neilson, entrusted the leadership of his orchestra to Maestro Lawrence Speakman, Artistic Director of the Concert Singers of Cary. It was a happy choice, for the guest conductor has become an outstanding leader who is able to bring freshness and enthusiasm to even the most popular and well-known fare. For this concert, Speakman also brought with him nine members of his august concert choir, further enriching the occasion.
Things got underway with a lovely setting of Irving Berlin's "White Christmas," in which the RSO sounded tip-top. Five excerpts from Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker followed — these were led with passion and played with incisiveness and brio. Alfred Reed's arrangement of "Greensleeves" is one of the best around, and the strings of the RSO soared throughout it. A comparably fine edition of "Winter Wonderland" preceded two admirable Christmas medleys consisting of hymns, carols, and seasonal favorites; these bracketed Leroy Anderson's "Sleigh Ride," which featured an amusing little twist of its own. Professing to be short-handed, the percussion department summoned from the audience a "volunteer" (Joe Ferguson, of the Concert Singers) to play the whip — an instrument that seemed to suit the draftee to a T. Here – and elsewhere, too – the RSO was in excellent form. There were some splats from the trumpets once or twice, but otherwise the playing in all sections was first rate. Speakman made up for the lack of program notes with pleasing and engaging but never intrusive banter.
For the grand finale, the audience got to do its thing during a holiday sing-along, led vocally by a double quartet plus one from the CSC — sopranos Megan Bender, Karen Davis, and Geiselle Thompson, altos Liz Cummings and PJ Zhou, tenors David Lindquist and John Picha, and basses Ken Scott and Andrew Fernamdes, most of whom also took solo turns along the way. The works selected were "God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen," "O Come, All Ye Faithful," "Unto Us Is Born a Son," "The First Nowell," and "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing." These were offered in arrangements by David Willcocks, who is one of the masters of the trade, and sung with enthusiasm and appropriate spirit by the guest vocalists with the audience joining in for the opening stanzas of all but the relatively unfamiliar central carol, "Unto Us...." It made for a heartwarming conclusion for a singularly attractive and handsomely realized holiday concert that surely got the folks who heard it into just the right mood at the start of the season. We have much to be thankful for, and our community orchestras and choirs are high on the list. Well done!