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The Memorial Baptist Church was the venue for the Greenville Choral Society's annual concert, this year Ralph Vaughan Williams' Hodie. (As the standing ovation at the end was dying down, an old Pitt County native behind me said to her companion, "That didn't sound like Christmas music to me.") But to me the rolling verses of Milton, George Herbert, William Drummond, and others, set to the music of Vaughan Williams, are the epitome of Christmas.
The Concert Choir of the Greenville Choral Society, under the direction of James Franklin, with the New Carolina Sinfonia, was an ideal ensemble to parallel the sort of semi-professional but completely polished choirs of the cathedrals of the Three Choirs Festival, where this piece was first performed.
The setting is mature Vaughan Williams at his most polished; we were thereby spared any contrived arrangements of Christmas carols. Instead we heard a grand and cohesive masterpiece, both of composition and performance.
The performance was prefaced by a monstrous earsplitting orchestral warm-up and the inevitable plea for funds. The church was largely full and festive with candles and greenery. The orchestra finally fell silent, the Concert Choir filed in, and the air was blessed with the opening movement, Prologue singing "Nowell, Hodie!" The choir was at their best when unaccompanied (although they could benefit from a little woodshedding to cure the bouncing music score syndrome).
In the fine tradition of Heinrich Schütz, J. S. Bach, and so many others who composed Christmas oratorios, Vaughan Williams begins at the beginning, with the text from Matthew, “Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise . . ..” The narrator was Kirby Baier, and she was magic! Her diction is as clear as a Caribbean anchorage and her tone color pure and devoid of uncontrolled vibrato. Sometimes the simplest singing is the best; Baier's voice is clean, pure, and unforced.
The soprano soloist was Nicole Franklin, who brought a totally different but equally excellent style of singing to the performance of the third movement Song with the text beginning "It was the winter wild" (fragments of a poem by John Milton entitled "On the Morning of Christ's Nativity" – sounds like Christmas to me).
The choir displayed their excellent diction, as well as other excellent musical qualities in the Choral – a Martin Luther hymn.
John Kramar and a very noisy air-handling system competed in the seventh movement Song (words from the Thomas Hardy poem "The Oxen"). Kramar won handily; sweetness always overcomes force. Kramar was also excellent in the ninth movement Pastoral – a setting of George Herbert's "The shepherds sing; and shall I silent be?".
Franklin's lovely and powerful voice was under firm control in the lullaby with an anonymous text in a setting by Benjamin Britten – "Sweet was the song the virgin sang."
The Hymn, with its text being the William Drummond poem, "Christmas Day" was our first chance to hear tenor Daniel Shirley, and he knocked it right out of the park; What an impressive piece of singing.
"The March of the Three Kings" is an overwrought piece of poetry by Vaughan Williams' second wife, Ursula. It is not up to the standard of the rest of the libretto. The three kings and their three gifts have inspired so many people from John Henry Hopkins on, to come up with three diverse stanzas; Ursula and Vaughan Williams could not escape that, but the movement turned out less than trite, especially in the hands of the Concert Choir and Maestro Franklin.
The final Choral: "No sad thought his soul affright" (Ursula V. W.) and Epilogue: "Ring out ye crystal spheres" (Milton), found the choir undiminished, as if they could still sing on through the night. They were excellent, just excellent. And again, I say that it sounded like Christmas to me!