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The big work on this year's seasonal program presented by the estimable Choral Society of Durham and super-talented members of the Durham Children's Choir was one of Dave Brubeck's best-known religious compositions, the grand pageant with music titled La Fiesta de la Posada (1975), with texts written and compiled from Biblical sources by Iola Brubeck. The concert began with mostly traditional carols from Latin and South America (mostly), making for an admirably unified evening, thematically and musically. The selections facilitated the selective use of members of a small instrumental ensemble of (generally) eight players. Soloists from within the CSD appeared in the first part of the program; four distinguished guest artists sang with the choruses in the Brubeck.
The concert was conducted by Rodney Wynkoop, long-time director of the CSD and other notable area choruses. Two carols sung by the DCC alone were led by its director, Dena Byers, and involved that ensemble's pianist, Jeff Whicker. The CSD soloists were sopranos Kelly Payne and Rachel Bowman-Abdi. The guest soloists in the Brubeck were ECU-based soprano Nicole Franklin, area tenor Wade Henderson, Duke-based baritone Ted Federle, and UNC bass-baritone Eugene Galvin. (In an odd coincidence of these engagements, we heard an indirect replacement of Louise Toppin at ECU and an indirect replacement of Louise Toppin – the same person – at UNC.) Finally, the instrumental ensemble consisted of pianist (and CSD accompanist) David Cole, Paul Neebe and Kent Foss, trumpets, John Hanks and Julia Thompson, percussion, Salome Sandoval McNutt and Rick Keena, guitars, and Robbie Link, bass – the sole holdover from the ensemble heard when this score was first performed in the CVNC era, 16 years ago (and that was in turn 11 years after the then Durham Civic Choral Society had first presented it).
So…, part I began with Tony Rubí's "Porque Dios ha nacido," the only carol attributed to a specific composer. All the others, a cappella or variously accompanied, were arrangements of traditional numbers, some of which were prepared by notable artists, including Ralph Hunter, a veteran of the Toscanini years at NBC. As the CSD's exemplary program notes (by Susan Dakin and Maestro Wynkoop himself) reveal, three involve the summoning of shepherds and wise men and three are lullabies. The CSD Chamber Choir rendered a traditional Cuban carol, and the DCC sang – radiantly – Mexican and Puerto Rican numbers. There was a gorgeous lullaby from New(!) Mexico. And the set ended with a festive song about a roasted suckling pig – which in a sense brought it all home to BBQ Central right here in NC. The participation of the kids – from grades 3 through 9 – with the adult singers proved to be even more heartwarming than this old curmudgeon had anticipated. As a colleague in the western part of our state is fond of saying, "Bravo tutti!"
We tend not to think of jazz great Dave Brubeck as a composer of religious music and never mind as a religious composer, but he was profoundly spiritual, and his embrace of sacred texts was ecumenical. There are numerous articles about this, several of which are cited at the end of this review; for now, please recall that the first of his oratorio-like pieces was birthed at UNC in the late '60s, in a tryout prior to the premiere in Cincinnati. There was music in the Jewish tradition (see Naxos' Milken project). And there was a Mass that led to his conversion to Catholicism. With all that in mind, and then given his upbringing in part of the old California mission region, a musical work celebrating Mary's and Joseph's search for lodging, cast in the Mexican tradition, makes perfect sense. The composer himself put it this way:
"I was born in a California town founded by the Spanish, raised on a cattle ranch that had been a Mexican land grant, and have absorbed and observed Mexican folk music all my life. As a musician, I have toured Mexico six times and always enjoyed listening to the folk music of the various regions. The ethnic music reflects those qualities I most admire in people… dignity in moments of tragedy, infectious high spirits in moments of joy, and an unshakeable religious faith made evident in a strong sense of one’s own worth and a deep respect for the shared values of one’s own group – family, church, village. These qualities, I think, are universal to people with a strong communal sense – an increasingly rare attribute in urban culture. It is this sense of sharing in an event which I have tried to capture in the simple retelling of the Christmas story."
The performance in Duke Chapel was consistently splendid in musical terms and looked quite wonderful, too, with singers standing alongside and in front of banks of poinsettias and the ladies of the chorus sporting bright scarves in complimentary colors. After the overture ("La posada"), the DCC singers made a grand processional entry down the center aisle, paying homage as they passed by the cradle that rested at the podium, next to a giraffe piñata. (Well, the spirit was correct, and maybe it was a donkey with a long neck.) The soprano solo set the mood perfectly, and the strength of the male singers was palpable throughout, led by our region's leading tenor. If there were moments that sounded like Bernstein at his best, that was more than ok, but Brubeck was a true universalist, so one could also detect hints of other great composers of our collective past, including (among others) Richard Strauss – no mean aural trick with such an idiomatic instrumental group. In staged performances, one often sees the gents as the wise men and the soprano as Mary, but in fact the soloists assume varied roles as the tale unfolds.
Here, we were captivated and spell-bound by the beauty of the singing and the import of the texts – provided in full in the program, with the lights left up to facilitate reading them. The many contributions of the DCC continued to impress, the purity of the young voices augmenting the rich choral sound of the CSD's members. As given here, the finale embraced a condensed recap of Genesis in "In the beginning," reflections on the joy of Christ ("Neither death nor life"), and the miracle of Christmas as "God's love made visible" – but no instrumental ending. Throughout, Wynkoop met or exceeded his customary high standards, inspiring accuracy, incisiveness, intensity, and astonishing levels of energy from all the participants, young and not-so-young. He has given up his work as Director of Chapel Music, but he hasn’t lost his touch.
The place exploded with applause – but neither fireworks nor piñata-smashing – nor was there a recession. Instead we heard a festive recap of the most festive carol – and patrons were then serenaded as they departed by carillonneur Sam Hammond – for the last time at one of these CSD concerts. And that's a wrap!
The repeat of this program, scheduled for 12/9, was cancelled due to the winter storm that began to blanket the state just hours after this concert ended.
On Brubeck's religiosity: https://www.americamagazine.org/issue/446/article/jazz-goes-back-church, https://www.deseretnews.com/article/865568267/The-religious-side-of-the-late-Dave-Brubeck-and-his-music.html, and https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/07/dave-brubeck-sacred-music_n_2255533.html.
And for performances of La Fiesta and parts of the first oratorio with Brubeck himself, click here.