The Hendersonville Symphony Orchestra delivered a concert labeled “A Carolina Christmas” for the fourteenth consecutive year. Many orchestras give holiday concerts in December, but few provide as imaginative a program as Music Director Thomas Joiner scheduled for this event. Composers such as Mozart, Handel, Holst, Faure and Bizet were represented alongside well-known arrangers Arthur Harris, Calvin Custer and Bruce Chase. There was a subtlety to the program, with frequent thought-provoking surprises.
A medley of Christmas favorites arranged by Bruce Chase began the program. Lush sounds from the brass choir complemented delicate filigrees on the strings as the Blue Ridge Conference Hall was filled with the sounds of “silver bells” and “chestnuts roasting on the open fire.” Soprano Erika Powell then joined the orchestra, singing the Allegro non troppo movement from Mozart’s Exultate Jubilate and “Rejoice Greatly” from Handel’s Messiah. Ms. Powell, a Furman University graduate from a few years ago, is now beginning a New York professional career in classical concerts and TV acting. It seemed a mistake for her to use a microphone, since she has plenty of vocal power and the orchestra had reduced its string section to about 20 players. Her ornamentation in the Handel was tasteful and she successfully kept her vibrato narrow and rapid.
The next set brought into action the Hendersonville Children’s Choir under the direction of Kristen Walter. They trooped up the aisles singing Gustav Holst’s “Personent Hodie” and formed their ranks in front of the orchestra to sing “Infant Holy, Infant Lowly” in an arrangement that used two-part treble harmony, accompanied on electronic keyboard. Two violins (Maestro Joiner and Concertmaster Mary Daniels) added color to the traditional Israeli folk song “Mayim Mayim.” The Children’s Choir has been operating for only two years, consists of forty children from kindergarten through grade 8 in Polk, Transylvania and Henderson Counties, and is yet another example of how the Hendersonville Symphony Orchestra is integral to youth music education in the area.
The very dramatic Russian Christmas Music suite by Alfred Reed concluded the first half of the program. The brass choir and the woodwinds excelled in this piece, which is based on Russian carols. The orchestra performed the piece with the same care and reverence that they would give to Tchaikovsky or Mahler.
A large part of the second half was the more conventional Christmas fare: a medley of familiar carols with the audience invited to join. But also on the second half were Bizet’s “Farandole” from L’Arlesienne Suite No.2 conducted by Francis Cullinan, high bidder at the charity auction last spring. Mr. Cullinan, with a background in legitimate theater, was one of the most professional of high-bidder guest conductors that I have witnessed, although the orchestra can be counted on to play correctly, regardless of what an auction winner does on the podium.
The guest artists returned to the stage for the final selection, Daniel Kantor’s “Night of Silence.” The children sang this modern carol while Ms. Powell sang “Silent Night” as a countermelody. The capacity crowd left the hall with a feeling that the season was indeed one of reverent joy.