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In their promotional literature and on their web site, the Oakwood Waits note their genesis as deriving from a casual get-together twenty-six years ago to do Christmas songs in their own little neighborhood. But don’t be fooled by that prosaic beginning. This group of sixteen demonstrated at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church that this is no slice-of-life ad hoc ensemble. They even drove away the cold December rain that had been threatening the proceedings all weekend. Enhancing their splendid musical offerings was the fact that the monetary offerings from the audience were designated to benefit Hospice of Wake County. (Preliminary reports indicated that the attendees were being most generous. This same charitable organization was the beneficiary of a similar Oakwood Waits concert a year ago.)
Garbed in authentic costumes from the nineteenth century of Charles Dickens, the group specializes in close harmony and imaginative arrangements. They point out that the term "wait" is an early English name for street musicians, especially singers. The "Oakwood" comes from the organization’s founding by residents of the Oakwood neighborhood in downtown Raleigh.
The singers announced their presence with “The Bellman’s Carol,” an English traditional, as they processed around and through the auditorium. Here was a literal bell-ringer that presaged the spirit of the evening. Part One of the program comprised some fifteen songs, all a cappella, featuring pieces such as the old Basque “Carol of the annunciation,” with its adoration of the “most highly favored lady.” Possibly the high point of this half came with “Gaudete” ("Rejoice") from sixteenth century Scandinavia. The fifteenth century English “Coventry Carol” and its moving “bye bye lully lullay” received some of the finest harmony and precision of the evening. In addition to more familiar selections came a real gem, “The Shepherd’s Farewell” from Berlioz’s L’Enfance du Christ. The singers recessed to an American folk hymn, pondering what “Wondrous Love” is this.
In Part Two the Waits breathed new life into “Winter Wonderland” and “We Three Kings.” These three kings had earlier received a particularly stately and moving treatment with “The March of the Kings,” a thirteenth century French traditional in which the three great monarchs seek the newly born. The story of the wise and the foolish virgins was told by the American “Midnight Cry” and the English “Kingsfold,” the latter arranged by Vaughan Williams. “In the Bleak Midwinter” was notable for its excellence of harmony and style. They roasted chestnuts by an open fire, and they warned that Santa Claus was indeed on his way to town. To please the enthusiastic crowd with an encore, they wildly “Wassail(ed) All Over the Town.”
It is quite possible that the Oakwood Waits were able to banish the Christmas blahs in most of the audience. Anecdotal evidence will have to suffice. One departing attendee declared that she was now going home and put up her Christmas decorations after all.