My esteemed colleague Ken Hoover was right when, a year ago, he said that Cantari, the then brand-new small choral group, based in Chapel Hill, was an "ensemble to watch and to hear." This choir's debut last season made it four for four, as now all of the "big" choral organizations — Raleigh-based NC Master Chorale, the Concert Singers of Cary, the Choral Society of Durham, and the Chapel Hill Community Chorus — have chamber choirs of exceptional quality. That this gives each performing entity virtually unlimited options with regard to repertoire should be immediately apparent: the big choirs can tackle the huge romantic pieces, many of which require orchestral accompaniment, and the chamber choirs can explore the more refined and restrained byways of the long history of choral music. Triangle music lovers thus hardly need leave home — although by doing that, they'd miss scads of wonderful singing. This was certainly the case on Saturday evening, in Chapel Hill, when Cantari, directed by Sue T. Klausmeyer, sang an exquisite and exquisitely-crafted program in the beautifully-decorated sanctuary of Binkley Baptist Church. The turnout was poor for such a fine program — there is lots of choral competition this time of year.
Things got underway with a demonstration of medieval English plainchant that served as a stately processional. Getting into and out of churches took a while back then, and folks stayed put for long hours once they arrived. This was a short lesson in the form, fascinating in its own right and even more so given the text, which isn't far from what is still in common enough use today. A pair of aptly-chosen contemporary works — Stephen Caracciolo's old English "There Is No Rose of Such Virtue" (with Latin interjections) and an "Ave Maria" by Giancarlo Aquilanti came next. Like most of the rest of the first half, these were a cappella, and the choir sang them with breathtaking precision and skill — and that several numbers were in eight parts certainly increased the "wow" factor regarding the singers' abilities. (A Latin text was given for the "Ave Maria," but it was sung in Italian; there were some other, more minor glitches in the program — some omitted words here, some omitted text there — but by and large the word sheets were helpful and, thanks to the singers' fine diction, rarely needed.)
A highlight of the evening was a radiant performance of Alonso Lobo's Maria Magdalene Mass, a five-section setting (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei) of exceptional beauty, sung with evident devotion and the finest sense of purpose. This work by Lobo (c.1555-1617) is perhaps best known to contemporary music lovers in a recording by the Tallis Scholars. It was a rare treat to hear it done live, and so well, in our area!
Conrad Susa's fresh approaches to holiday music are often heard; his Three Mystical Carols are fine examples of the innovative composer's tendency to mix the familiar with the unusual. Likewise, Franz Biebl's lovely "Ave Maria," known in various settings, is one of the season's staples; here, it was given in an SATB version with soloists.
Following a brief intermission, there was rich, full choral singing in the "Sussex Carol," as arranged by David Willcocks; the ensemble sounded far larger than the numbers would indicate. Andy Esser was the light tenor soloist in an arrangement by Joshua Jacobson of Chaim Parchi's salute to the light, "Aleih Neiri" (1988), sung in Hebrew. Three Carols by Stephen Paulus included well known fare in new guises: Christina Rosetti's "In the bleak midwinter," world famous in Holst's hushed setting; "Angels we have heard on high,” in which the tune took on new meaning in the composer's treatment; and "Make We Mery," which served as the title of the evening's program, although it was mostly a somber, quiet, reflective sort of affair, as opposed to an eggnog-quaffing one. That said, things took a turn toward the silly and contemporary with two selections from PDQ Bach's Consort of Choral Christmas Tunes (sung by two slightly different quartets), followed by "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and "A Merry Christmas," the sum of which sent the enthusiastic audience members away on upbeat, happy notes. Well done!
(We've spent a good deal more time on the program than might otherwise have been the case, but while there were texts and/or translations in most cases, there were no notes or, for that matter, write-ups on the ensemble, its conductor, the organist, or the many superior solo singers whose work graced the proceedings — nor were there any credits regarding funding or info on where to send donations, if one were of a mind to do so.)