Duke Chapel, decked out in its Christmas finery, was the perfect setting for the North Carolina Boys Choir Christmas concert, but enjoyment of the concert was less than perfect because of a rather boisterous and unruly audience. There was total disregard for organist John Alexander's lovely prelude (not identified in the program), barely audible above the audience buzz in spite of a note in the program requesting silence by 7:25 p.m. After the lights were flicked off and on three or four times, the audience quieted mostly, and the magic began with unaccompanied soloist Kent Brouwer singing unperturbed, on pitch and angelically, the first verse of "Once in Royal David's City." The choir joined in on the second verse with such a fine blend it sent chills up my spine. The audience was invited to join in with words for the succeeding verses printed in the program; few did. The last verse was graced with a full organ accompaniment and a soaring descant and all was as it should be. We could have been at King's College, Cambridge, where this stunning processional has been traditional for 87 years.
The boys, settled in the front of the chapel, next sang a chorale from Bach's Christmas Oratorio, followed by a gorgeous rendition of "O Holy Night" by Henry Branson, whose upper register was like silk.
It was a longish concert with 30 selections printed in the program, in five sections. A note in the program requested that the audience "hold all applause until the end of each section," but then what parent can refrain from expressing their approval of such fine artistry accomplished by these hard-working and well-trained youth? Thus applause after almost every piece prolonged the concert. It was observed that a significant parade left the chapel at intermission about 8:35 p.m. The announced 10-minute intermission stretched to 25; nothing less is reasonable anyway with the poor restroom accommodations for Duke Chapel concert audiences. The program was varied with carols, motets, solos, duets, and excerpts from oratorios. All selections were sung from memory, and all filled the chapel with ethereal echoes.
There were many highlights. Markos Simopoulos sang the haunting Bach-Gounod "Ave Maria." "O Come All Ye Faithful," with an a capella third verse and trumpets and a stirring descant on the last verse, was outstanding. (The trumpeters were not identified in the program.) In the second section, Arthur Jennings' "Springs in the Desert" was especially nice with Scott Mann, Assistant to the Director, singing the introductory baritone solo. Joseph von Eybler's motet "Omnes De Saba Venient," with organ, two trumpets, and solo work by Henry Branson, was bright and delightful. Markos Simopoulos and Scott Mann each sang a solo verse of Harold Drake's grand setting of "In the Bleak Midwinter."
Section III featured solo selections from Messiah, sung by Henry Branson, and the duet "Laudamus Te" from Vivaldi's Gloria, sung by Branson and Simopoulos. These are fine young voices, and the boys have remarkable musical sense and skill.
The fourth section of the program, featuring the Training Choir, gave us a taste of rich treasures to come. They began with the 17th century carol "While by my Sheep" (sometimes referred to as "The Echo Carol") and ended with an enthusiastic performance of "Consider Yourself" from the musical Oliver. The final section of the program included a stunning performance of Franz Biebl's "Ave Maria," with Paul McLaurin doing the tenor solo. Conductor William J. Graham held a well-paced and solid tempo and refused to allow this transcendent piece to drag as many others do.
The North Carolina Boys Choir is impressive with their skill, their training, their disciplined singing and presentation. They are the epitome of what a good boys choir should be and are an asset to this community so richly endowed with musical treasures.