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Without our knowing it, my wife Sue and I had driven past St. Mary's Chapel many times over the years, usually on our way to concerts and theatre events on the nearby Central Piedmont Community College campus. In more than a few instances, our attention had been caught on late summer afternoons by weddings that were being celebrated inside the picturesque little chapel – made more picturesque when we occasionally glimpsed a white bridal gown emerging onto the lush green grounds in the gloaming. But until our GPS emphatically announced, "You have arrived at your destination," we had never associated the chapel with the traditional site of Carolina Pro Musica's yearly Yuletide concerts. Our previous encounter with Pro Musica had been at St. Martin's Episcopal, in the same neighborhood, over seven years ago, and while St. Mary's certainly catches the eye, its name is concealed on the street signage in small print beneath the name of the property, Thompson Park, managed by the city of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County. As it turns out, the former chapel of the defunct Thompson Orphanage, built in 1892, was the birthplace of Carolina Pro Musica in 1977. So there was a feeling of getting better acquainted with the group and their original venue as we attended Christmas at St. Mary's for the first time.
Both are remarkable for their smallness and simplicity. Instrumentally, the Baroque ensemble is a trio with Karen Hite Jacob sitting down to the harpsichord after her moderator chores, Edward Ferrell taking up the transverse flute and recorder, and Holly Wright Maurer usually scraping out a continuo on viola da gamba, but also capable of picking up a recorder or a transverse flute. Vocals come primarily from soprano Rebecca Miller Saunders, with Ferrell frequently performing harmonic backup vocals and the rare (and ill-advised) solo. Rounding out the Christmas program, local radio personality Bob Sweeten performed a series of readings that alternated with the musical selections, ranging from the Old and New Testaments to poems by Isaac Watts and T.S. Eliot. With Sweeten decked out in a monk's robe – and taking his sweet time before coming to the lectern – there was a definite church service flavor to the concert. Asked not to applaud until the end, the audience was encouraged to sing along with most of the familiar repertoire, heightening the devotional ambiance.
Compared to the millennia between the texts of Isaiah and Eliot, composers represented on the program were far more circumscribed, as befitted Pro Musica's instrumentation and period costuming. Aside from a flute concerto, ably advocated by Jean-Pierre Rampal on an obscure Connoisseur Society recording, I don't think I have anything by Michel Corrette (1709-95) in my collection. So it was a treat to renew my acquaintance with the French composer through his "Musette," nicely fronted by Ferrell at a lento pace, followed by a faster "Noël provençal" that began with a tasty harpsichord solo from Hite before the transverse flute reasserted dominance. Saunders introduced herself even more agreeably, singing the 13th Century "Veni, veni Emanuel" before the audience responded antiphonally with the "Gaude! Gaude!"
Saunders sang a couple of Johann Crüger (1558-1662) hymns, "Non komm der Heiden Heiland" and "Vom Himmel hoch," both drawing exquisite accompaniment from Ferrell on recorder. More exotic, she sang "Dormi puer blande" by Maria Xaveria Peruchona (1652-1709), after Sweeten had drained much of the candor and spontaneity from Eliot's "Journey of the Magi." We had no fewer than four Bach selections from Saunders, two of them, "Wachet auf!" and "In dulci jubilo," familiar enough for the congregation to join in for the second stanzas – in English, singing "Sleepers, wake!" and "Good Christian Men," respectively. "Wie schön leuchet der Morgenstern" took Saunders a little north of her most secure range, but at least her singing was unmixed with the impurities of the congregation. Purest of all was the honeyed sound of Saunders performing a simple arrangement of the "Quia respexit" from the Magnificat celebrating the Virgin Mary. The staccatos and the long-held notes of the legato passages were equally delightful, with silken accompaniment from Ferrell on transverse flute.
Walking into St. Mary's was like entering a humbler Puritan world of worship. Simple beams outline the high triangular ceiling, and the chapel's walls, windows, and lighting are in no way ornamental or bright. I started to remove my coat when I first sat down, but instinctively, the dim light prompted me to keep it on. My decision was fairly common, I discovered, as I looked around. A cup of hot cocoa or hot apple cider would have made a perfect companion, perhaps swaying me to trust my sweater. I remained comfortable throughout the concert, seated in the straight wooden pews, the rustic simplicity of the place reminding me of a mountain shelter. When the concert concluded with "Adeste fidelis," the audience layering on three stanzas of "Come, All Ye Faithful" after Saunders' lead vocal, there was a fresh infusion of convivial warmth.