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The Concert Singers of Cary gave the first of three atypical holiday pops concerts in the Cary Arts Center on a chilly Friday evening; two more performances are planned for December 14. This is one of our region's better large choirs, and hearing them in the relatively intimate confines of the lovely new theatre in their hometown was a treat all by itself.
CSC Artistic Director Lawrence Speakman put together a remarkable program of unusual music, new and fresh arrangements, an unexpectedly wonderful guest, superb accompaniments from the Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle and pianist Allen Bailey, and of course some major contributions from his outstanding choir.
It would be easy to lose sight of the fact that this is the Concert Singers' program, for things got underway with a lovely orchestral reading of Leroy Anderson's "Christmas Festival" Overture, basically a well-hewn medley of familiar carols and songs. Next up was the guest artist, singer-songwriter Karen Hart, a Tar Heel native making her first concert appearance here in a long, long time. She's well-known in music and in Los Angeles, where she's now based. Her singing and her songs are refreshingly fine, so her long absence here is something to regret. In turn, she recruited Michael Kelsh, a Nashville-based Tar Heel native, to render assistance, and his banjo, guitar, and vocals bolstered the proceedings considerably. Here's the bottom line: many pop artists have appeared here in orchestral programs, but few if any have been so beautifully integrated as this one. The reasons are many. Hart is a wonderful singer, and engaging performer, a vibrant stage personality. She also writes wonderful music that touches deep emotions. Her songs ran the gamut from sentimental ballads about the holidays to tributes to veterans to a profoundly moving elegy for an ECU classmate recently lost to breast cancer. Holiday fare, you may ask? Given that our holidays are memories reflected in tinsel and shiny ornaments, you bet. Along the way there were nods to Hanukkah ("Judah and His Maccabees") and to Passover ("Shake My Faith") but of far greater musical and artistic merit than the customary nod to non-Christian religious observations. Hart also provided music for several choruses of great appeal and interest, including an a cappella number done by the women of the CSC and a grand finale, written in partnership with Kelsh, that saluted a "Carolina Christmas" – premiered on this occasion. It's worth going to hear one of the aforementioned repeats, just to experience Hart's remarkable contributions. But there's much more to savor/
The COT is one of our superior artistic organizations, and the presence of these fine musicians was a boon to the overall proceedings. Their work was excellent throughout, both collectively and individually, and in addition, Speakman made sure the balances were consistently fine, within the orchestra and with the chorus.
And the singers were delightful to see, done up in colorful attire, and to hear, too. They performed some dandy new takes on older tunes, including arrangements by Barlow Bradford of "Angels We Have Heard on High" and "I Wonder as I Wander" and a bouncy version of Anderson's "Sleigh Ride." A pairing of a scat version of "Winter Wonderland" featuring Hart and three CSC vocalists with a choral version of the original was another example of superior programming.
Another was launching the second half with taps, followed by that tribute to vets.
There's so much it is a wonder everything fit into a little over two hours, including a longish intermission.
Folks who missed it who might be interested in a very unusual and richly rewarding take on the traditional holiday pops owe it to themselves to hustle over to Cary for one of the two repeats. For more information, see the sidebar.