Bel Canto Company's "Carols & Classics" program, heard on December 3 in Greensboro's Christ United Methodist Church, was attended by a large crowd who no doubt knows of this chorus' well-deserved reputation for excellence. They were not disappointed – the intonation of these singers is superb, their diction is natural and clear, their ensemble is as though of one mind, and their choral sound is special. In existence for 22 years, most of that time under the guidance of Artistic Director and Conductor David Pegg, the group this year consists of 33 singers, each with impressive music education and experience.
The concert opened with John Mitchener's performance of Claude Balbastre's "Where Are Those Happy Shepherds Going?" It is an interesting aside that Balbastre, a French organist and composer who lived from 1727 to 1799, was relatively well known in colonial America and his works were often programmed at Williamsburg's Bruton Parish Church while the music of J. S. Bach was unknown in the colonies – actually very little known outside of Saxony. Mitchener's performance on the C.B. Fisk Op. 82 organ was a very pleasant start to the concert.
The choir processed singing "O Come, All Ye Faithful" in the David Wilcocks arrangement. Done by Sir David in his Cambridge days, it is a fine and joyous setting and an impeccable paean to all that Christmas is about.
Herbert Howells' rich harmonies filled the spacious neo-gothic sanctuary with a performance of his Magnificat and Nunc dimittis, in which the solo was beautifully sung by John Cary. There is a strong tradition in English church music to combine the words of Mary in response to the greeting of her cousin Elizabeth and the words of Simeon at the purification of the Child. It is another summation of the Christmas event from the first two chapters of Luke.
The order of the printed program was revised without comment and while this is no big thing, I for one would have appreciated just a brief comment to prepare me for the next selection. Franz Biebl's gorgeous Ave Maria seems to grow more popular every Christmas season. First recorded by Chanticleer in the 1990s, nearly 30 years after it was composed, it employs a lilting lyrical melody and sweet harmonies that grab you the first time you hear it and move you every time it is sung.
The selections that best showed the capabilities of the Bel Canto Company were the Four Motets for the Season of Christmas by Francis Poulenc. These unaccompanied motets are among the best from this devout composer of the early to middle 20th century. They are ethereal and earthy at the same time, with vocal lines often exposed and delicate in counterpoint reflecting a renaissance feel combined with Poulenc's distinctive contemporary sound. They were sung with extraordinary dynamic control and projected an emotional and spiritual impact that was wonderfully gratifying.
For the second half of the concert, Bel Canto Company was joined by the Central Carolina Children's Chorus under the direction of Ann Saxon and Leigh Walters (Assistant Director), with Cynthia Saylor providing accompaniment. The presence of violinist Donna Mulholland, harpist Julie Hammarback, and oboist Anna Lampidis also added sparkle and nicely flavored this half of the concert. The children's groups, in various combinations, sang with discipline and enthusiasm, bespeaking fine training and hard work.
A set of six Traditional Carols arranged by Alice Parker and Robert Shaw gathered the audience around the Christmas tree on Christmas morning – well, around an English Christmas tree anyway. The singing of "What Child is This?," with solos by Tandy Brown and Gerald Whittington, was especially wonderful.
" Love and Joy," two familiar carols ("Angels We Have Heard on High" and "O Little Town of Bethlehem") arranged by Stephen Paulus, provided more Christmas delights, and the concert was topped off with Arthur Warrell's "A Merry Christmas." Pegg responded to the warm and enthusiastic applause by bringing the Central Carolina Children's Chorus back along the outer aisles for a combined rendition of an alluring arrangement of "Silent Night."
This is David Pegg's last season with the Bel Canto Company after an agreeable and rewarding relationship all the way around. This season celebrates that relationship with performances of many of his favorites. Their last performances in Greensboro under Pegg's wand (he doesn't use a baton, but he surely works magic) will be in the spring. Watch the CVNC calendar for specific dates and times and make it a point to be there.