What standards do we apply when we attend a concert by the Carolina Concert Choir? The ensemble is amateur and local. Its director Lawrence Doebler is a retired professor. But the music that these forty-odd vocal musicians produce meets the most exacting standards one might apply to any choir, so we ratchet up our expectations when we go to a CCC concert, and the 2014 Christmas Concert, held Saturday afternoon in the Thomas Auditorium of Blue Ridge Community College, met those elevated expectations.

The concert was structured with the care and precision that is a hallmark of Professor Doebler, who took over as Artistic Director of the group after moving here in 2013 after 35 years as Director of Choral Activities at Ithaca College. An initial work, Alice Parker‘s complex arrangement of “O come, all ye faithful,” allowed time for latecomers to be seated and the audience to settle in so the Bach Magnificat received their full attention.

The major work was J.S. Bach’s setting of the ancient “Canticle of Mary.” In the first movement, the Latin word “Magnificat” (“My soul doth magnify the Lord”) is gloriously announced by the choir and – on this occasion – a twenty-piece orchestra. The next movements include several solos with varying small instrumental forces interspersed with the dramatic choral movements “Omnes generationes” (“All generations”) and “Fecit potentiam” (“He hath showed strength”). The final three movements build to a climax, beginning with the women’s voices only in “Suscepit Israel” (“He hath holpen His servant Israel”) followed by all voices and orchestra in “Sicut locutus est” (“As He spake to our forefathers”) and finally a fortissimo “Gloria Patri” (“Glory to the Father”). The six vocal soloists were all from the choir. Especially good were alto Wendy Jones and soprano Sandie Salvaggio-Walker. Larry Black’s trumpet solo was impressive in “Fecit potentiam” and the entire brass section shone in the first and final movements. The continuo group (harpsichord, bass, and sometimes cello) was unobtrusive (as it should be) but always strongly present. And from first to last, the choir was exceptional. If I had to choose a highlight, it would be the women’s gorgeous conclusion of “Suscepit Israel,” still resonating in my mind as the men began the fugal “Sicut locutus est.” Smiling faces in the choir; good cheer to all.

After intermission, Doebler requested that the audience hold applause until the end of each group. His planning was meticulous, and each section had an overall impact that was greater than its parts.

The first group used a twelve-member reduced choir. It included a naive carol by 18th-century American composer William Billings, followed by an amazing early baroque piece by Giovanni Gabrieli, “Angelus ad pastores Ait” in twelve-part harmony, sung a cappella. That performance haunts me still, hours later.

The next group held three carols composed or arranged by contemporary composers based on old Christmas tunes. Morten Lauridsen‘s “O Magnum Mysterium” showed the choir at its best. Present throughout was warm tone with carefully shaped phrases and color provided by the inner voices. And then came soaring late measures that subsided into a low and vibrant “amen” – all these details had been mastered by the choir.

Another group of contemporary carols concluded with John Rutter‘s 1988 masterpiece “What Sweeter Music.” I first heard this work when it was quite new, at the church in London, Ontario, that my mother attended and which Rutter visited every mid-December. Twenty years later I had to sing the bass part myself and realized the subtle complexities of the work. Among all the 20th-century compositions for Christmas, this is one of my favorites, and it was a fitting conclusion to a fine concert.

Almost a conclusion. The choir gave what might be called a “programmed encore”: they sang Rutter’s arrangement of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” We will have one, thanks to the Carolina Concert Choir.