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The largest house I've ever seen in St. Paul's Episcopal Church was privileged to hear the Christmas concert of the Greenville Choral Society Concert Choir, joined by the New Carolina Sinfonia. The near capacity crowd showed clearly that the lofty acoustics of St. Paul's are undiminished by so much soft fluffy stuff on the pews.
Although without intermission, the program divided itself neatly into three parts. The first part was a medley of arrangements of simple seasonal carols. These ambitious arrangements were handled in stride by the carefully coached singers under the direction of Jeffrey Ward. Even the reverberating sound of the church was no hindrance to the choir's excellent diction.
"Deck the Halls" was brisk and clean; the Spanish carol "Fum, Fum, Fum" was performed at a very fast clip. The "Jingle Bell Scherzo" was an overblown arrangement of this simplest of Christmas songs, which showed off the accuracy of the singers. "I'll Be Home for Christmas" was slow and romantic; the basses were a little ragged in their first entry. "I Saw three Ships" was powerful and complex, with great balance between the parts. The choir's forces were a little heavy for the delicately arranged "The Holly and the Ivy." The choir was at the liturgical west end of the cruciform church, and I was seated in the south transept, about as removed as one could be in St. Paul's. Even from that far position, the enunciation of the complex story of "Good King Wenceslas" was crystal clear. The carol section closed with "[We Wish You] A Merry Christmas" in an arrangement that expanded about half a cup of carol into about three quarts of excellent singing.
The second part of the concert was two of Mozart's Kirchensonaten (K328 and 336), single-movement compositions for use between the Epistle and Gospel in the Mass. The fifteen listed players of the New Carolina Sinfonia were joined by Catherine Garner, playing the organ by C. B. Fisk of Gloucester. Her playing was precise and her entrances spot on. Her registrations were careful and appropriate. The sound in St. Paul's is so lush, so homogeneous, that it was hard for me to be sure, but it sounded to me like all of the orchestral parts were underlaid by far too strong an organ pedal line. The score available to me does include the organ in the basso continuo, but the pedal sounded too strong. But what a marvelous space and instrument for this music!
The third part of the concert was meat and drink, and dessert too, to me: Handel's Utrecht Te Deum, HWV 278, a setting of the fourth-century hymn for an official celebration of the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. The sound in St. Paul's Church does not favor running passages; it is much better for long suspensions; St. Paul's, Greenville, probably does not compare unfavorably in this way with St. Paul's Cathedral, London, the site of the original performance. Of particular note was the precise oboe playing in section 4, "The Glorious Company Of The Apostles." Section 5, "When Thou Tookest Upon Thee," is a lovely quartet for SATB soloists, all of whom acquitted themselves well. The softest piano is plenty loud to be heard in this live space. In section 8, the alto was unfortunately overpowered completely by the orchestra. The trumpets were flawless in section 9, "Vouchsafe, O Lord," but the organ was far too prominent.
The Greenville Choral Society dedicated the concert to the memory of Kathleen A. Row, 1947-2013. She was a member of the group in 2011-12 and 2012-13, a member of St. Paul's Church Choir 2006-13, and chairman of the ECU Psychology Department 2006-12.