In its first concert of their 33rd season, the Asheville Choral Society under the direction of Lenora Thom presented a delightful array of seasonal carols at Asheville’s Central United Methodist Church. The concert was accompanied by Vance Reese (organ/piano), Matthew Richmond and Paul Babelay (various percussion), and instrumentalists Amy Cherry (trumpet) and Charles Holland (trombone/stringed bass). As luck would have it, the concert was preceded by the city’s annual fireworks display, a festive prelude to the evening’s beautiful choral program.
Thom is many things — a pianist, organist, vocal coach, teacher, arranger, and conductor. She was active as a church musician in churches and synagogues from 1970-1998 in Maryland, Connecticut, New York and New Jersey, has done extensive work in musical theater productions, and has acted as Assistant Conductor for the Asheville Symphony. She was appointed to the directorship of the Asheville Choral Society following the retirement of founding director Dr. Robert P. Keener. Her directing style is dynamic and intense — one could not fail to notice her many interpretive gestures from either side of the podium, nor her deep love of this literature.
A word about Vance Reese: Asheville’s renaissance musician par excellence. Reese is a supremely gifted musician — organist, coach/collaborative keyboardist, double bass player, singer, and teacher. He’s much sought after as a keyboardist for his uncanny ability to sight-read and play well just about anything; his inherent musical skills are, in a word, amazing.
The program opened with American Christmas, a medley of four Advent carols (“Zion’s Walls,” “Simple Gifts,” “I Wonder as I Wander,” and “Star Carol”) by popular choral arranger Z. Randall Stroope. The program would thus proceed in sets of carols uninterrupted by applause that allowed a mood to be established. The chorus consists of over 100 singers, the majority of them women (65 sopranos and altos vs. 40 tenors and basses). Their sound is lovely — warm and beautifully blended — but needs more men to balance the treble and anchor the bottom. Their diction was clear, and dynamic contrasts consistently good. Moreover, Thom was able to propel the ensemble forward to shape phrases in meaningful and musical ways, not easy with so large a group.
Next were John Rutter’s “What Sweeter Music” with organ and John Ness Beck’s “Every Valley” with trumpet, organ, and percussion on the same text set by Handel in Messiah. Two movements (“Beautiful Star” and “The Shepherds All Are Waking”) from Libby Larsen’s Ringel Tänze: A Cycle of Carols and Dances incorporated the full sounds of handbells from its 8 ringers, a beautiful frame for the quiet, chordal “All My Heart This Night Rejoices” by Stroope with organ performed as an inner movement.
The set before intermission was African-themed. “Betelehemu” a Nigerian carol arranged by Barrington Brooks, featured the men intoning this single word against a simple treble melody, rhythmic ostinatos played on a djembe (African drum held between the knees in this case) and shimmering sounds generated by several rainsticks. “Hodie Christus Natus Est” by Kirby Shaw was structured around a rhythmic ostinato in the altos, while the sopranos doubled by trumpet sang a simple, beautifully floating melody. The set concluded with “African Noel,” arranged by André Thomas, which featured two sets of drums against a catchy, syncopated melody sung in unison.
After intermission came first a set of carols — “Wassail Song” by Ralph Vaughan Williams, “The Rune of Hospitality” by Alf Houkom, unusual for its three-note marimba motive and serene, colorful harmonies, and two arranged by Rutter (“Here We Come A-Wassailing” and “Deck the Hall”). Ward Swingle’s popular Swingle Bells, the program’s jazz element, featured bass Michael Ellis as the scat singer on “Jingle Bells.” ”Il est né le divin Enfant” featured interesting rhythmic shiftings; “Es ist ein’ ros’ entsprungen” worked as a simple chorale against a bluesy vibraphone accompaniment. “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen” had the basses singing, almost growling in their lowest tessitura. “The First Nowell” was the most straight-forward of the set, with a lovely trumpet obbligato, and a lustily sung “Go Tell It on the Mountain” rounded out the set. The program concluded with the regal sounds of trumpet, timpani, and organ accompanying the choir on “Joy to the World” by Handel, arranged by Frank Kuykendahl into massive blocks of chords and soaring vocal lines.
The program was repeated Sunday afternoon.