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The notion of the 180-voice NC Master Chorale doing a Christmas concert may suggest taking a 12-cylinder Ferrari to the mart to fetch kitty litter, but on the other hand, this large group is one of our region’s superior vocal ensembles, and the sound they produce is at once engaging and precise, so why not? Meymandi Concert Hall was the venue for this holiday program, titled “Joy of the Season.” The room was nicely decorated – ribbon bedecked garland outlined the stage and upper-level choir stalls, and wreaths adorned the boxes.*
The Chorale has a distinguished heritage as the region's oldest large auditioned chorus – the Choral Society of Durham was launched when Bull City vocalists tired of the commute to the capital – and under the leadership of Alfred E. Sturgis it has continued to improve and expand, too; the elite 21-voice NCMC Chamber Choir was added during his tenure. Oratorios and masses – some of the great works of our Western cultural heritage – remain the NCMC’s bread and butter, but the organization also excels in lighter fare, as this concert and its annual Valentine’s Day programs demonstrate.
On this occasion, Greensboro-based Carolina Brass, a sextet whose members include Timothy Hudson and Dennis de Jong, trumpets, Robert Campbell, French horn, David Wulfeck, trombone, Matt Ransom, tuba, and percussionist John R. Beck, shared the program with the singers and with the NCMC’s regular accompanist, Susan McClaskey Lohr, whose keyboard skills were heard from time to time throughout the afternoon on piano or electric organ. (The combination of brass and percussion with organ is often seen as festive, although there’s no substitute for a real room-shaking pipe organ, so when the recession abates, someone needs to get crackin’ on a decent instrument for Meymandi Hall.)
There were six reasonably concise sections of the program. Opening and closing the show were two groups performed by the full NCMC. That’s a whole lot of singers, and they filled the upper choir stalls and risers on the orchestra level. They sang in sections, rather than quartets, which arrangement tends to produced better balance and blend – there are however twice as many women as men, so a quartet arrangement doesn’t work. There’s also considerable distance from the back of the stage, where the singers stood, to the audience, and that distance can and at times did result in some sense of remoteness. Nonetheless, the opening group – music from Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers, a lovely “Hodie” by Schütz, and “Welcome All Wonders,” composed by former National Cathedral organist and choir master Richard Dirksen. These served nicely to set the sound of the choir, the brass ensemble, and the organ, although the seriousness of the pieces was to stand in some contrast with most of the rest of the program.
Next up was the NCMC Chamber Choir, whose renditions of Conrad Susa’s Three Mystical Carols were among the afternoon’s high points; it’s a shame that there was applause after each one, for it broke the quite magical mood the pieces can convey. This little choir includes some of our region’s finest choral singers, soloists, and teachers, and several of them are choral directors on their own, so hearing the NCMCCC at work is always bracing and artistically satisfying.
The brass ensemble brought the first half to a close with some brilliant playing and cutting up in five well-known tunes (including Hudson’s own arrangements of “O Come, o come Emmanuel” and “Once in Royal David’s City”).
Part two began with the Chamber Choir in lovely performances of carols, new and old – “The Star Carol” and Darmon Meader’s arrangement of “We Three Kings” were highlights. (The soloists in this group, not credited in the program, included choristers David Mellnik, Wanda Ramm, Katie Chen, and Leanne Glasgow.)
The brass choir returned for more little gems, including “My Favorite Things,” which fit well enough in the context of a holiday program; as before, there was a good deal of banter surrounding these things, akin to the kind of carrying-on that marks many hand-bell concerts, but here there was no real need for the chit-chat to cover any sort of setting up or preparation, so it might have been nice to have had more music and less talk.
The concert then ended with the big chorus and the brass ensemble in six truly festive and impressive numbers – “Ding Dong, Merrily on High,” “Angels We Have Heard on High,” “O Sing for Joy” (arr. Paul Royer), “There Is No Rose,” “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” and “Joy to the World.” These were delivered with verve and enthusiasm that was positively infectious, and there was an almost immediate ovation for the artists, although they’d sung their songs, as the saying goes, so there was no encore. In retrospect, this closing group might better have served as the afternoon’s curtain-raiser, in part because it was the music that seemed to mean the most to the public.
*Outside the performing arts center, gloom prevails. Someone has placed two forlorn gas-guzzlers near the stagnant pond that passes for art on the plaza – has the city gotten into the car business, in an attempt to make an extra buck or two for its convention center complex? Give us a break! This is a public space, funded in large measure with public money!