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Although we don't know if he was a sailor, "Steady as she goes" may have been Fuller Blunt's motto. Certainly that expression fits what was clearly his goal in his work with the Concert Singers of Cary, for he was, as CSC Executive Director David R. Lindquist explained in September, when Blunt passed away, that choral ensemble's "central figure and... mentor." As a result, the choir's December 15 holiday concert, its eleventh such, was dedicated to Blunt's memory - as was a day of broadcasting by WCPE on December 16.
The concert began with a half-hour presentation by the Cary Children's Concert Choir, whose 35 or so members are directed by Roberta Thomason. Their seven offerings, variously accompanied, featured a single soloist - Katie Hernandez, who was discreetly amplified - in Jay Althouse's "Hodie" and some other attractive pieces that spanned a range of styles and traditions, including Chanukah. The mixed ensemble fared better than many all-boy or all-girl groups and--miracle of miracles - never once sounded the slightest bit breathy. The singing was confident and assured, and the pitch didn't wander. There was often too much piano, and the instrument, lovely to look upon, sounded clunky, but Thomason and her charges persevered and the capacity crowd seemed delighted with the performances. Including this choir, known within the CSC as C4 (for obvious reasons), in a mainstream program was a masterstroke that allowed the youngsters to be heard by far more people than would normally take in a concert given by the kids all by themselves. Cary has a lot going for it, musically and otherwise. This ensemble is just one of the town's attributes.
The adults began their part of the program with Ukrainian and Russian carols, sung in English, Vaughan Williams' impressive Fantasia on Christmas Carols, and Schubert's lovely Magnificat, D.486. In the Vaughan Williams, baritone soloist Kevin Smith's intonation was sometimes off, but his voice was rich and he made himself heard consistently. An absent basso obliged CSC Music Director Lawrence Speakman personally to fill in the quartet in the Schubert; he joined soprano Sally Ann Timothy, alto Leann Carroll, and tenor Lindquist in this undertaking, with altogether positive results. The group's conductor can do more than one thing at once, which is helpful in such circumstances.
A chamber orchestra accompanied the two concert works performed in the first half. It was a busy night for our orchestral friends--the new, much ballyhooed Nutcracker was concurrently being given in downtown Raleigh--but Speakman secured excellent players, including Concertmistress Margaret Partridge, cellist Nathan Leyland (whose several solo bits were impressive), and organist Kevin Kerstetter.
It was a long program, and some members of the audience - perhaps including the C4 singers' families - evaporated during the intermission. They missed a very strong second half that began with five seasonal numbers, variously accompanied. Flutist Leslie Speakman, harpist Emily Laurance, and guitarist Randy Reed participated in this section, and all were superb. The music included Rutter's "Angels' Carol," a beautiful arrangement by Dale Warland of "What Child Is This?," and a Brazilian folk song arranged by George L. Mabry. "Ocho Kandelikas," sung reverently, lacked the effervescence and pizzazz that Mappamundi brought to it during a recent concert in Durham, and CSC soloist Joy Cox was hard to hear, but the song was delivered in Ladino and appropriately accompanied. Mezzo-soprano Kelly Stephenson fared much better in Jeffey Van's attractive "Child of Peace," and this section ended with a beautiful setting by Stephen Paulus of "Bring a Torch, Jeanette Isabella."
The concluding work was Saint-Saëns' "Christmas Oratorio," a relatively brief score that involves soloists a good deal more than the chorus. It has been presented here in the Triangle fairly often (we last heard it in 1999, courtesy of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Community Chorus, which delivered its 2001 holiday concert concurrently with the CSC's--see below for a review). In Cary, the soloists were soprano Amy Athavale, mezzo-soprano Stephenson, alto Lee Rollison, tenor Tom Hawkins and baritone Bob Dey. The tenor part runs high, but Hawkins coped well; the other parts were nicely done, overall, although the women generally out-sang the men. We suspect that slightly brisker tempi would have helped all around, making the soloists' tasks easier and increasing the level of excitement for the audience. The choral work was excellent, and the whole thing benefited from outstanding orchestral work and Speakman's strong abilities to achieve crisp, clear diction and proper balance and blend--no easy task with a choir in which there are nearly twice as many sopranos and altos as there are tenors and basses. The reading was warmly received, and the ensemble rewarded the audience with what has become its traditional holiday encore, a mixture of "Peace, peace, peace" and "Silent Night," the latter with audience participation.
The printed program included erudite notes by Lindquist plus texts and translations of the works that were sung in languages other than English. The layout was a bit strange--the translations and texts were interwoven, with the translations appearing ahead of the texts in tightly-packed columns.