The Carolina Concert Choir continues on its journey of excellence with a new director. After thirty-five years of directing choral activities at Ithaca College (well-known in the Northeast for its music education), Lawrence Doebler has retired to Hendersonville, and becomes the artistic director of this small vocal ensemble that auditions every candidate for membership and accepts members selectively.
Along with the change in conductor, the Carolina Concert Choir has also changed its venue. The ensemble will now regularly perform in the Bo Thomas Auditorium at Blue Ridge Community College. This 450-seat multipurpose hall was designed with electronically amplified speech in mind, but its unamplified acoustics are acceptable to good, so long as you do not sit close to the absorbing acoustic tiles used on the side walls towards the back of the hall.
Lawrence Doebler is a "minimalist" conductor who uses small hand motions and facial and head signals to communicate intimately with his musicians. He provides no grandiose waving arms intended to impress the audience; his concentration is on tasteful musical production. To this end, he asked the audience to hold applause until the first set of eight traditional carols was complete, so that the succession of key signatures and moods would not be interrupted.
Doebler's choice of carol arrangements was interesting. Three carols were arranged by Mack Wilberg (associate director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir). Two of these (the Catalonian carol "Fum, fum, fum" and the English carol "I saw three ships") utilized two players on the accompanying piano. The third ("Away in a manger") used a flute most effectively in accompaniment, the flute being played by young chorister Vashti Baluch. Craig Phillips, a protégé of famed organist Russell Saunders of the Eastman School, was the source of an intricate version of "The holly and the ivy" that featured a cappella singing in some passages, a complex piano accompaniment in others, and a descant in the final verse. Older arrangers John Rutter and Robert Shaw were also represented, as well as Carolyn Jennings (professor emerita of St. Olaf College) whose arrangement of the spiritual "Go Tell It On the Mountain" rounded out the group of eight carols on an upbeat note. Following this with a brief audience sing-a-long, Doebler used broader hand and arm motions. He had to convey his direction to people at a greater distance, and adjusted his style accordingly.
The Christmas section of Handel's Messiah, plus the "Hallelujah" Chorus, constituted the second half of the program. For this work, a fifteen-person orchestra accompanied the forty-odd singers. Most instrumentalists were from the Hendersonville Symphony Orchestra, supplemented by a harpsichord for continuo.
If the first half had proven the high quality of the new conductor, the Messiah provided a measure of the high quality of the chorus. The five soloists were members of the choir: tenor Samuel Guberman, bass Brian Tribby, alto Judy Meinzer, and sopranos Jean Goodwin and Tina Batchelder-Schwab. Their intonation was uniformly good, the ornamentation was generally accurate, and diction was outstanding for all the soloists. Ms. Goodwin has a somewhat light voice, but oh my, it is nimble. Mr. Tribby has a pleasing rich tone. And outstanding work was done by concertmaster Mary Irwin in frequent violin solo passages and by the harpsichord-violin-cello trio that accompanied some passages. Thinking over the experience, it was clear to me that a small but skilled chorus such as this provides a more pleasing Messiah than the usual large amateur choirs that we hear. It was a most fitting Christmas treat.