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Since 1969 the Greenville Choral Society has been serving those who like to sing and those who like choral music with a long-running series of great choral works and “seasonal selections.” The concert choir turns in a consistently beautiful performance, especially since maestro Jeffrey Ward has taken the helm. Ward's ability to get a chorus to do what he wants ranks him right at the top of the choral conductor list. Intonation, time, diction – he can pull it all out and he has the chorus to match his skill. The fifty-odd members of the Concert Choir sang cheerfully as one organism in their performance of Christmas music and Vivaldi's Gloria.
Walking and singing is harder to do than walking and chewing gum; nevertheless the choir's entrance procession singing “O Come Emmanuel” in arrangements by Alice Parker and Robert Shaw was nice, very nice, setting a fine atmosphere. The entire piece was a cappella, beginning as plainsong, the 19C “plainsong” familiar to all from church hymnals, and swelling into a much more complex arrangement, all well in tune.
The atmosphere so carefully established was shattered by the Sousa-esque “Fanfare for Christmas Day” by Martin Shaw, pairing this heavenly chorus and a fine group of string players and woodwinds with trumpet and organ seemingly from the other place.
The organ was accurately played by Concert Choir Accompanist Dr. Catherine H. Garner. Unfortunately, the choice of registration, especially the heavy wide-scale 16-foot pipes in the pedal, made a gut-punching roar that obscured both basses and tenors and the cellos and bass of the orchestra. To say that the sound was pathologically uninformed is an understatement. A theorbo, harpsichord, or chamber organ, all frequently heard in Greenville, would have been an addition to the continuo; all of the music of this concert would have been tremendously improved if the Memorial Church organ had remained silent. Perhaps an excellent instrument for Sunday service in the Baptist style, with the piano added for accent, the organ was totally unsuited for use as a continuo instrument.
For “While By My Sheep I Watched At Night,” Ward pulled out a solo quartet of Lindsey Hayek, Amber Davis, Bill Hodges, and Jason Kossol. Theoretically sound, I think the echo would have been better coming from among the choir or from backstage. Soprano and alto were a little prominent against the tenor and bass.
“Angels We Have Heard On High: and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” featured the crystal diction and marvelous singing of this choir. The orchestra and organ were no enhancement; the choir should stick to a cappella.
Although the arrangement of “In The Bleak Midwinter” gave the choir every opportunity to show their stuff, the arrangement was at complete variance with the meek, gentle words of the Rossetti poem.
“Sing, Be Joyful Christ Is Born” begins with music from Louis-Claude Daquin's Noel Ten, "Grand jeu et duo," both for organ and for the orchestra, a la Stokowski. The choir continued superb, the orchestra less so, although the strings were not bad when unencumbered by the organ or trumpet.
The choir concluded the first part of the program with “Joy To The World.”
The second half consisted of Vivaldi's Gloria, RV 589. The inclusion of the organ added nothing to this performance. “Et In Terra Pax” was notable for a couple of delicious soaring suspensions. “Gratias Agimus Tibi” and “Qui Tollis” showed off the beautiful intonation that the choir is capable of. The soprano solo in “Qui Sedes Ad Dexteram” was easy and unstressed. The entire Gloria was polished and even, clearly showing off the excellence of Ward's preparation abilities. This is a powerful group of singers, capable of acquitting themselves well with any musical difficulty thrown at them.