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There is a new star in the mountain music constellation, phoenix-born from the twenty-four year old Carolina Chamber Singers, under the able direction of Bradford Gee. Although this is Maestro Gee's second Christmas concert, we may consider this concert his and the CCS' real debut, now that they have wintered and summered together. The chorus is now fifty members strong, an ideal maximum size. They are also strong in their singing ability, thanks to Gee and their hard work. The December 7 concert, the second of two, was a treat from beginning to end, with old favorites freshly presented and a generous amount of interesting new music.
The program opened with Johann Kuhnau's "Uns ist ein Kind geboren," a typical German church cantata. The choir's German was crisp, clear, and correct, although it sounded like the soloists could use some more pronunciation work with Gee. After a year with Gee, the vocalists have their unruly vibratos ninety-nine percent under control and sing with commendable transparency. Marjie Chappell's soprano aria sparkled with crisp and controlled ornaments. Michele Skeele's solo recitative and aria were very melodic. It would be nice if her German were a little crisper. The final Chorus, an ornamented and accompanied chorale, was both stylish and lovely. An Ave Maria by Franz Biebl (1906-2001) featured Zelle Nelson, baritone, and Keith Dale, tenor, as soloists with the full chorus. They sang with great clarity and nice balance. Dale has a particularly lovely tone quality. Pronunciation of the Church Latin was even better than the German, although it was again apparent that the choir had done more woodshedding on this than the soloists.
It is always a delight to conductors of volunteer groups when there are enough men. In "O Magnum Mysterium" of Morten Lauridsen (b.1943), the good SATB balance was greatly facilitated by enough men; the foundation under the women's voices was excellent. In this motet the thing that goes bump in the night made its first appearance. I am told by those who were seated closer than I that it was the maestro stamping his foot in unconscious enthusiasm. The enthusiasm was certainly justified, or a good conducting tool, as the choir was perfect in every way.
Following intermission, the Singers performed selections from Messiah . Without any music in the form of an introduction, "And the Glory of the Lord," though beautifully sung, was an abrupt beginning, and there was an interminable pause before Sara Smith began "But Who May Abide...." Her soprano voice is well known to area audiences. There was another awful pause before And He Shall Purify, but the music was superb. The pauses between numbers are not something that is usually written into the score, but they definitely need to be considered, and conducted, by the conductor. And Kristin Walter? Ah! What a wonderful high alto, what beautifully clear diction; her "Behold" and "O Thou" were like speech set to music ought to be! In spite of an occasional problem with placing first notes and with interval leaps, I could have listened to an entire concert of her speaking on pitch. The choristers were also flawless in their part of "O Thou." Sue Hjelsand did a bang-up job with the recitatives and accompagnatos leading up to "Glory to God," which entered subito; that makes all the difference! This may have been what made the men a little ragged in their first entrance, about the only time in the concert that this was a problem.
Ray McGee played double bass wherever orchestra was used. His playing was impeccable, but the decision to use such a loud modern bass was not successful. There were serious problems in almost every piece with the balance between the double bass and everyone else. This is caused not by anything McGee did wrong but by the better-than-average acoustics of St. James Church, which make every musical sound as loud or louder at the rear as in the front and may favor the lower frequencies. Hindsight being what it is, it is likely that, authenticity be hanged, cellos alone would have been a better choice, especially if they could be played as well as McGee played. There were also some other people with instruments in many of the pieces in this concert.
A fourth part of the concert included "The Blessed Son of God" from Vaughan Williams' Hodie. The performance was lilting, rich, warm, clear; the entire Hodie , prepared to this standard, would be a good choice for a future concert. Next was "In the Bleak Midwinter," the Holst tune, as arranged by Harold Darke (1888-1976), with obbligato bumps, then Charles Black's arrangement of the Austrian folk song "As Lately We Watched," and Rutter's "What Sweeter Music" and his arrangement of "Joy to the World." What a super send-off at the end of an excellent concert!
Carolina Chamber Singers (not to be confused with the UNC Chamber Singers in Chapel Hill) is no longer a parochial outfit but a serious, professional-quality chorus that justifies a fifty- or seventy-five mile drive to hear them, not just a few miles in Henderson County. Bravo to Maestro Gee; kudos to his chorus!