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Cary's Herbert Young Community Center contains a gym, and it's in that venue that the Concert Singers of Cary and the Triangle Wind Ensemble presented a marvelous holiday pops concert on December 4. It looked like a gym, and its vapor lamps sang along with the music. The floor was covered with a protective tarp. But the place was attractively decorated, and at one end of the large room there were risers for the choir, backed by a multi-section shell, and that shell was lit in red and green. The band was set up in front of the risers, and there wasn't much space between the musicians and the large audience. All those bodies surely helped absorb some of the sound. The bottom line: it was the best sounding concert this writer has heard there, and it was one of the best and happiest holiday concerts yet heard, too. Now admittedly we CVNCers don't do too many pops concerts, largely because there's so much else going on. But this one was not your typical movie-music and Broadway show mix, with a guest artist who is not completely at home in front of an orchestra (or band, or...) tossed in to help sell tickets. Nope, this one featured a lot of music that was new to this listener — and if much of it was light, it was consistently good and well realized.
The TWE, a 45-member ensemble of seasoned performing vets, got things underway with a festive Fantasia by Timothy Mahr. Robert C. Hunter, the director, is in charge of bands at Enloe High School, and if the playing of the TWE can be taken as a guide, the students there are in very capable hands. Solo work from individual players was strong, and the group's balance, blend, and attention to dynamics were first rate. A band of this size in a boomy space could have been a challenge, but these players never seemed too loud, and in fact the only significant evidence of conflict between musical intent and realization came from the timpani (harder sticks might have made for crisper beats) and the somewhat overamplified (and not very good) synthesizer that filled in for piano, harp, and (perhaps?) several other absent instruments.
Later in the program, the TWE offered Alfred Reed's impressive "Russian Christmas Music," surely one of the evening's highlights. The ensemble often sounded like a great pipe organ, so rich was the sonority, and the music was powerful and moving. There were nods to other traditions (other than Christmas, that is) in Steve Reisteter's "Eighth Candle" and to secular traditions too, in Randol Alan Bass' attractive and effective setting of "'Twas the Night before Christmas," narrated with skill by NBC 17's Melanie Sanders.
The Concert Singers of Cary, led by Lawrence Speakman, performed at intervals with the band during the course of the intermission-less program. Bass' "A Symphony of Carols" was the first of several works that incorporate seasonal melodies — some well-known, others less frequently heard; the soloists were Amy Athavale, Lisa Fredenburgh, and Robert Dey, all reasonably audible. Soprano Athavale also soloed in Bass' "Christmas Flourish," another medley of carols. Both impressed with the skill of their construction and their musical effectiveness. For years we have turned to the four-section "Many Moods of Christmas" for tasteful arrangements of seasonal favorites. Bass has added new options, and for that all holiday listeners must be grateful.
The CSC's other big number was Craig Courtney's delightful "Musicological Journey Through the Twelve Days of Christmas," a take-off of sorts on the well-known countdown piece but with a twist — it sets the lines in various musical styles, ranging from chant to Sousa. Thanks to the CSC's lavish program book and notes by Executive Director David R. Lindquist, there was ample documentation so everyone could be in on the jokes (and yes, even experienced listeners are unlikely to have known all the sources without the crib). The large choir sang this number and the others with keen musicianship, remarkable projection and diction (particularly given the venue), and careful attention to all the requisite niceties.
Rounding out the evening were "White Christmas" and "Sleigh Ride" and a good arrangement of Anderson's "Christmas Festival" sing-along that allowed the audience to claim they've performed with the CSC and the TWE! The crowd was clearly pleased with the whole show and seemed reluctant to let the artists go, but there was no encore.