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"Bach and Holiday Pops" was the title of Friday evening's concert at the Bo Thomas Auditorium of Blue Ridge Community College by the 55-member Carolina Concert Choir under the direction of Lawrence Doebler. A 20-member chamber orchestra accompanied the Bach Magnificat in D. Most of the other works had a Hanukkah or Christmas theme, and some were accompanied by a few instruments. Katherine Price was the collaborative pianist and harpsichordist throughout the varied program. For two selections, the All-County Honors Chorus joined the adult choir.
The Carolina Chamber Singers was organized in 1979 as a Hendersonville-based madrigal group of a dozen voices carefully auditioned by Dr. Robert Barrow, retired head of the music department at Williams College. Beverly Ward directed the group until 1996, and it grew to be the Carolina Chamber Singers of 25 to 30 voices, attracting singers from upstate South Carolina, Asheville and Brevard as well as Hendersonville. During the years 1996-2002, the choir had no permanent conductor and was hosted by St. James Episcopal Church in Hendersonville. When Bradford Gee was recruited to be organist and choirmaster at St. James, he also became conductor of the vocal group. The name was changed to the Carolina Concert Choir when Gee carefully expanded to 40 or 45 voices, with every member auditioned annually and no presumption of continued membership. Quality was paramount.
In the twelve years from 2002 to 2013 under Gee's leadership, it became the finest choral group in Western North Carolina. That is not just my opinion: the choir was invited to the Piccolo Spoleto Festival in Charleston, SC four times between 2004 and 2009. Against that distinguished history, I found this year's Holiday season concert to be a let-down.
The Bach Magnificat should have been the high point; instead, it was the greatest disappointment. The Bach is designed for the resonance of a large church and did not fare well in this hall, which is acoustically designed for the spoken voice, and having a short reverb time, is too dry for most music. The conducting was metronomic in the Bach, the choral singing often lacked shape and nuance. Among the four featured soloists, only Sandie Salvaggio-Walker constrained her vibrato to conform to the requirements of the Baroque repertoire. The decision to have the soloists miked added to the acoustic problems. The auditorium has two widely spaced large speakers, and it was disorienting to watch a soloist directly ahead of me while hearing the voice coming from away off to my right.
There were a few good moments in the Magnificat. Larry Black's piccolo trumpet playing, the flute playing of Paul Doebler and Pamela Ducker, and the occasional section where the chorus seemed in rapport with the words stood out. "Fecit potentiam," "Suscepit Israel" and "Sicut locutus est" come to mind. But on the whole, it was a disappointment to hear a great piece of music in a mediocre performance.
The high school choir joined the adult CCC after intermission for "I am in Need of Music," an Elizabeth Bishop sonnet beautifully set by David L. Brunner and nicely sung. Other high points of the concert were two profoundly Southern selections: "Brightest and Best" (originally from Southern Harmony and cleverly arranged by Shawn Kircher) and "Star in the East" (from Sacred Harp and having a shape-note music past). The latter work was added as an encore. The choir was enthusiastic and the harmonies comfortable in these pleasant nods to our Southern Appalachian heritage.
This is still a good choir, but it was a better one a decade ago. Some time over the last ten years it appears to have lost its passion for quality and its interest in excelling with a demanding repertoire. It has become a more complacent group of happy singers. Perhaps the ensemble should be shrunk in size by one-third to its former tight ensemble, and its musical standards restored. It could once again be the gem that I remember.