The Hendersonville Symphony Orchestra and the Carolina Concert Choir joined forces at the Blue Ridge Conference Hall for “A Carolina Christmas.” It is a winning combination when these two major regional ensembles come together. The impact of both music directors, Thomas Joiner of the HSO and Bradford Gee of the CCC, was evident in their selections, ranging from a Bach Cantata to a contemporary arrangement of “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”

Maestro Joiner initiated the program by leading the HSO in Eugene Ormandy’s orchestral transcription of the J.S. Bach Chorale Prelude “Wachet Auf.” Then Maestro Gee came to the podium to conduct Bach’s famous fifteen-minute Advent work, Cantata No. 61 Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland. The cantata starts and ends with movements for full chorus, during which Gee’s expressive hands shaped the sound of the forty-member choir into moments of glory. This is a choir that understands the importance of consonants. The clarity of their German text was outstanding. The middle movements are a recitative and aria for tenor, a bass recitative and soprano aria. The tenor in this performance was Jim Boussard, the bass Brian Tribby, and the soprano Karen Areheart. The orchestration becomes more subdued for the bass recitative and the soprano aria is accompanied only by bass continuo (keyboard, cello and double bass). Frances Duff played a carbon fiber cello and Katherine Menafee Price played an electronic keyboard simulating the sound of a harpsichord. Toward the end of his life, Bach expressed much interest in the fortepiano replacing the harpsichord, and I feel confident that he would have approved of the new instruments producing his three-hundred-year-old music.

The Choir then performed a capella “Bogoroditse Devo” (“Rejoice, O virgin mother of God”) from Sergei Rachmaninov’s Solemn Vespers, a work in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. The eight-part harmonies came to a strong climax with a characteristic deep Russian second bass part, then calmed to an exquisite pianissimo. The capacity audience responded with an exemplary hush that added to the emotional impact. The next two short works included the lovely “Lux Aurumque” by Eric Whitacre, a work that transported the listener to ethereal heights.

Then came more-familiar carols; during The Many Moods of Christmas, the audience was invited to join in two verses of “Joy to the World.” This four-part suite, arranged by Robert Shaw and orchestrated by Robert Russell Bennett, completed the first half of the program. 

Following intermission, Bruce Chase’s Around the World at Christmas Time provided additional classy arrangements of carols. Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride” followed, conducted by Eugene Hamme, who made the high bid for that privilege at last year’s auction in support of the HSO. Hamme, who is HSO President, proved to have musical talent and a thorough grasp of the work’s structure. He used his left hand well, wheeling to the left and right to give well-defined cues. The HSO board has good hands musically as well as business-wise.

Next Bradford Gee returned to the podium, this time with baton, to conduct three selections from Kenton Coe’s Carols from the Appalachian Mountains. Scotch snap rhythms and the frequent use of pentatonic scales in these carols demonstrate the Celtic influence on Appalachian music. Coe, from Johnson City, Tennessee, was in the audience and accepted applause along with soloists Lynn Moore and Sandie Salvaggio-Walker (sopranos), Judy Meinzer (alto), Rich Smith and Mark Ardrey-Graves (basses). Salvaggio-Walker was particularly appealing in “The Seven Blessings of Mary.”

The “Toy Symphony” is a divertimento, not a symphony. However, it is always fun, especially when the soloists are capable of playing toy instruments with precision. It is amusing to have the cuckoo, toy trumpet, ratchet and other toys played with mock seriousness, exactly in tempo. Maestro Joiner conducted this extravaganza, and then a fine arrangement of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” by Bob Chilcott. That work is a find. The “five gold rings” riff is altered for each of its eight appearances, with several beautiful choral arrangements and other appearances that allude to “Silent Night,” jazz, Dixieland, and contemporary pop music. 

The successful concert concluded with two well-known carols, the audience again being asked to join in. I had the impression that most of the audience appreciated the range of this concert, from baroque masterpieces through to familiar carols, as they prepare for the holiday season. A second performance (with a different guest conductor for the “Toy Symphony”) was delivered on Saturday, December 12.