A little over 37 years ago, a young musician, choral director, and teacher did a remarkable thing in the Bible Belt city that was little ol' Raleigh. Thomas E. Sibley, then fairly new with the school system, established a boychoir in the tradition of the great English cathedrals and began giving annual "Carols of Christmas" concerts, generally on the first Sunday in Advent, that often launched the holiday season. It was the height of the Vietnam era, Raleigh was still without the NC Symphony, talk of a ballet company here would have prompted substance abuse inquiries, and opera meant the National (formerly the Grass Roots) Company, with its styrofoam sets hauled around to high school gyms in the back of a truck. There was a boys choir in Burlington, but it was too far away to draw Triangle singers – and indeed there was hardly a Triangle, come to think of it, since IBM and NIEHS had landed here just a few years earlier.... The Durham-based choir now known as the NC Boys Choir was several years from being started.
Thanks to the war that gripped us then, the Lamberts missed the first several years of Raleigh Boychoir concerts, but by the early '70s we and scads of others had discovered them. The Christmas concert programs were fairly predictable. They started with a procession into a church sanctuary that had been decorated for the holidays, and the magic of the setting – with wreaths, garlands, bows, candles, etc. – helped establish the appropriate mood. There were many familiar carols – or carols that, over the years, became familiar. There were appearances by the boys in training, youngsters whose aspirations for success in this world included moving up to the "big" choir. Sometimes there were guest artists – instrumentalists, usually. From time to time, there were solos, small ensembles, or bits of percussion provided by the boys. At the end, there was a recessional, often with candles; this was generally "Silent Night," and from time to time the audience would join in and recess, too, leaving the church via walkways lined by singing boys in their fancy robes with their ruffled collars and – for several years – their fancy little hats.
Time has been kind to the Raleigh Boychoir and to (Chorus) Master Thomas, too. The venues have shifted over the years – this year, for the 37th annual "Carols of Christmas" concert, the location was Edenton Street United Methodist Church. And the dates have shifted, too. Instead of coming on the First Sunday in Advent, it was on the Last Tuesday before Christmas (which is probably not a proper Christian name day...). The sanctuary was handsomely done up with an immense tree and white poinsettias adorning the altar. The processional music was "Once in Royal David's City"; the first verse was intoned by an amplified solo singer at the lectern, after which the rest of the group processed. There were selections sung by the massed singers, by the groups now known as Choir I and Choir II, and by the Resident Choir, which is apparently the in-training bunch. There were some issues involving attacks, volume, intonation, diction, and the like, but by and large the musical results were good, and the leadership – by Sibley and Resident Choir Director R. Benjamin Hutchens – was keen and involved. Hutchens doubled as organist for several selections, but most of the accompaniments were provided by pianist Vicki Oehling, whose many years of service have resulted in an ideal supporting artist with just the right touch. This was a reunion of sorts for grads of the RBC – the ushers were former choirboys and the guest narrator, Thomas Caves, Jr., was, too. Other participants included violinists Eleanor Detriville and Lucy Turner, heard in several numbers.
The repertoire ranged from "Adam Lay Y-bounden" to "Beautiful Christmas Time" to a sextet version of "Bring Your Torches." Among the most effective selections were the "Carol of the Bells," "Patapan," and a substantial arrangement by Alice Parker, "A Garland of Carols." Max Reger's "The Virgin's Slumber Song" featured soloist Mark Parrish. The novelty this year – Sibley keeps the programs fresh – was a lovely Magnificat by Herbert Sumsion. All told, the program consumed about an hour, and it was a serene, peaceful, and soothing respite from the mad rush that grips so many of us beyond church walls at this time of the year. It's good that these programs are ongoing, for they provide a measure of constancy in our lives. For years, it was unimaginable to begin the season in any other way. Now, it's hard to imagine ending the season, musically, with anything else.