There's a Sinfonia in Garner. Who'd have thought it possible? Ah, the times, they are a'changing.
When I moved to Garner – well, to a suburb of Garner, actually, called St. Mary's Township, outside Auburn, which probably never thought of itself as particularly close to Garner, if the truth be told – in the summer of 1954, a Sinfonia of any kind was the last thing on our minds or, to be sure, the minds of our agrarian neighbors. Therefore it was with hesitant curiosity that we took Old 70 to the Garner "Historic" Auditorium, in the old high school, on a cold Sunday afternoon, passing the former eastern branch of the Governor Morehead School (now used by the highway patrol) and the two great culinary landmarks of the town – the one-time site of the Garner Grill (now a diner) and the world-famous Toot-'n'-Tell – for the purpose of hearing the debut performance of the Garner Sinfonia.
Come to find out, the Sinfonia is a fairly recently renamed ensemble of students from (more or less) grade 9 through college, formerly known as the St. Mark Symphony, directed by Steven W. Wheltle with the assistance of Jason Pace. The ensemble, which on this occasion mustered a bakers' dozen mostly string players, has made a deal with the Town to use the attractive and acoustically appealing space for a series of concerts this year.*
For this inaugural program, the Sinfonia joined forces with the Schola Cantorum of Raleigh, another small ensemble of fairly recent vintage that till now has escaped CVNC's attention. It's a vocal ensemble of eight singers, directed by Lynn Hudson, that seems to specialize in early, mostly a cappella music.
With the backing of the Sinfonia, the Schola Cantorum sang the "Alleluia" from Bach's Cantata No. 142, Uns ist ein Kind geboren, one of the Christmas cantatas. There followed a short Advent motet by Palestrina, sung a cappella by the eight vocalists, who were attired in costumes that suggested really old times. The Sinfonia then launched the first of three sections comprising the entire "Christmas Concerto" of Corelli, with the Schola Cantorum singing two short graduals by Byrd – "Tollite Portas" and "Rorate Caeli" – between its movements. On the one hand, these broke the flow of the well-known Corelli concerto, but this was an innovative and effective programmatic idea, and it gave the young instrumentalists a short break in an otherwise fairly demanding piece. In all these numbers, the singing was admirable and the playing of the Sinfonia, quite remarkably good.
The considerably longer second half of the program was devoted to a performance of the "Christmas portion" of Handel's Messiah, which is to say Part I and the "Hallelujah Chorus" from the end of Part II. This was a remarkable thing by any standard. For openers, the Schola Cantorum was joined by two solo artists and several other guest singers, effectively matching in number the instrumentalists on the stage and thus making for a charmingly small-scale chamber version of the sometimes sprawling "cast of thousands" oratorio that everyone loves to sing. If some of the tempi seemed slow, perhaps driven by the abilities of the back-deskers to articulate some of those quick runs, the overall result did the customary trick, inspiring the audience and no doubt the artists, too, with one of Western art music's greatest treasures.
The generally excellent soloists were Lynn Hudson, Mildred Harman, David Lindquist, and Lewis Moore. Earlier, in the Corelli, the concertino players were violinists Maitreyi Muralidharan and Melody Lin and cellist Cheryl Schlitter. The (electronic) keyboard was played by Schola Cantorum bass Jason Pace, the Sinfonia's associate director.
*The next program in this series will be presented on February 27. For details, see our calendar closer to that date.