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Sampling an ensemble new to me led me off my three-pronged Winston-Salem beat of Old Salem, the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, and Wake Forest University. I had not been west of the Cherry Street I-40 Business Exit since it was the only I-40 in the 1970s. The Piedmont Chamber Singers are an auditioned, volunteer choral ensemble now in their 36th season. Their fall concert had focused on the music of Benjamin Britten. Artistic Director Wendy Looker asked singers to nominate their favorite Christmas selections for this winter or holiday concert. Attendees of the fall Britten concert voted their choices from the ensemble's list. The resulting program, performed in the lovely, modern St. Timothy's Episcopal Church, proved unhackneyed as well as fascinating. The program was divided into four parts, performed without intermission.
The first part, "Motets of Joy and Mystery," featured several Latin texts treated by different composers. "O Magnum Mysterium" is a responsorial chant from the Matins for Christmas. The setting by Tomás Luis de Victoria (c.1548-1611) is serene and stately while the version by Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) combines adventuresome voice leading with 20th-century chromaticism. Plush, long melodic lines and finely focused harmonies are features of the recent arrangement by Morten Lauridsen (b.1943).
The concert opened with the vivacious "Hodie Christus natus est" by Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562-1621), a bright and sunny text for Catholic Mass on Christmas Day. Sweelinck uses a dance-like melody and lots of imitative passages. One of two selections from Poulenc's Quatre motets pour le temps de noel is a fleet and vivacious setting of the "Hodie Christus." It was coupled with "Quem vidistis pastores dicite," which features a call-and-response sequence asking what the shepherds had seen.
These Latin settings revealed a very well prepared ensemble with excellent diction and solid voice quality in all four sections, soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor, and bass. While male singers make up about a quartet of the choir, they are rock solid in quality and balance beautifully with the women's voices. The sopranos have a really fine quality as they scale their higher parts and the basses give a resonant floor that anchors wonderfully.
The Second Part, "Songs to the Babe," featured English and German carols and settings. "O Jesulein süss, O Jesulein mild" opened this section in an arrangement by Samuel Scheidt further arranged by J.S. Bach. The German traditional carol "Still, Still, Still" arranged by Luc Jakobs came next. "Here is the Little Door" by Herbert Howells (1892-1983) features unusually vivid and strongly contrasted imagery in a text by Frances Chesterton (wife of G. K. Chesterton). Versatile vocalist Amber Engel, tenor Aaron Winkler, and accompanist Norris Norwood were featured in "In the Bleak Midwinter." The text by Christina Rossetti was set by Harold Darke (1888-1976). Norwood supported the soloists while the choir responded a cappella. The choir's women, ably supported by Norwood, took the spotlight in "This Little Babe" from A Ceremony of Carols, Op. 28, by Benjamin Britten (1913-76). Spatial contrast was a highlight of "I Wonder as I Wander" by John Jacob Niles in John Rutter's effective arrangement. In this, Engel sang the lines from the left rear of the church followed by the choir at the front. All the soloists from the choir had even, pleasing voices and excellent diction and strong projection.
Part III. "Songs to the Virgin," opened with a hearty performance of Robert Shaw's arrangement of the beloved "The Holy and the Ivy" with an apt solo performance by tenor William Saunders. Most interesting was "A Hymn to the Virgin" by Britten. A vocal quartet (soprano Kathy Jacobs, Amber Engel, tenor Chris Heckman, and baritone Marland K. Chang), placed to the left of the pews, delivered refrains in Latin in response to the English half of the text. This was superbly done.
Part IV, "Carols of Celebration," brought the concert to a spirited conclusion. It opened with the Gloucestershire Wassail, "Wassail! Wassail all over the Town!" which only missed the clanging of mugs filled with warming drink. The mood sparkled even more with the vivacious singing of "Caroling, Caroling" by Alfred Burt. The evening good spirits was capped by "A Merry Christmas" in Arthur Warrell's arrangement.
The consistently high quality of the Piedmont Chamber Singers and their imaginative programing makes their spring concert, featuring music of Henry Purcell, in the Old Salem Visitor's Center, a high priority for any lover of choice choral music. For details of that concert, click here.