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It wasn’t even December yet. But you’d never suspect it if you had been at Meymandi Concert Hall as the North Carolina Symphony kicked off the yuletide season with its Holiday Pops Concert. The North Carolina Master Chorale served as equal partner of the orchestra, with William Henry Curry conducting the combined forces.
Three of the twelve pieces featured the orchestra alone. Curry set a vigorous pace in the opener with “Mother Goose and Her Children” from Tchiakovsky’s Nutcracker. The much lesser known “Festive Sounds of Hanukkah” by Bill Holcombe came later. Grandiose lines from this work showed the symphony in its most excellent form. Certain sections here reminded one of compelling passages from Respighi’s Pines of Rome. Near the end of the program came a festive reading of the obligatory “Sleigh Ride” by Leroy Anderson.
The featured solo performer of the evening was baritone Scott McLeod. His stylish, even stentorian, tones rang out powerfully in a surprising arrangement of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” by William D. Brohn. He was the soloist in what Curry called the major offering of the evening, the Swiss composer Arthur Honegger’s combined “Ne craignez point” and “Gloria in excelsis Deo” (“Be not afraid,” loosely, and “Glory to God in the Highest”).
In the Honegger work, as indeed elsewhere, the orchestra and chorus performed as one huge unit. The Chorale could be seen as contributing some eighty extra instruments to the symphonic mix. The piece began with quiet, somewhat mysterious strains as the sopranos and the soloist gradually entered. There came then a mixture of the modern and the traditional, with nods to popular Christmas songs. Throughout its length the work repeatedly reverted to a theme from the bracing, march-like French Christmas song, “Il est ne, le divin enfant” (sometimes sung as “He is born, the divine Child”). The ending echoed the beginning, dying dramatically away.
The Chorale was at one with the players again in John Williams’ “Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas” from Home Alone. In this piece and in “Jesus Child” by John Rutter, they showed the skill one expects from their having been led by Alfred E. Sturgis. (Anthems by Rutter have become almost as mandatory as the aforementioned “Sleigh Ride” is at Christmas.) In “Seasonal Sounds” by Randol Bass, they closed in elaborate fashion by telling of Rudolph, Frosty, Jingle Bells, and warning that Santa Claus is actually coming to town.
The “Christmas Pop Sing-Along No. 2” was another matter entirely. Here the Chorale was augmented by an incredible number of extra voices, employed with gusto. To judge from an admittedly small sampling from just one vicinity, the auditions for these performers could not have been overly demanding.
It’s a safe bet that the Grinch would not have felt welcome at that festive gathering.