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Voices: The Chapel Hill Chorus' 2018-19 season opener, Hodie!, captured the essence of the holidays with its collaborative spirit and guest artists. Before the concert itself began, the Cathedral Brass Quartet, an ensemble from Alamance County with decades of experience, provided music in the lobby of Hill Hall Auditorium at UNC. The second half of the concert brought Dr. Kevin Johnson of Spelman College (along with his own arrangements), vocalist Clarke Brown, drummer Tony Sawyer, and bassist Todd Coleman. These talented guests helped bridge stylistic differences from the traditional carols of the first half to the more contemporary choices, post-intermission.
It is also important to mention that this concert was also the first to welcome Voices' incoming artistic director, Dr. Stephen Futrell. Dr. Sue Klausmeyer's eighteen-year leadership of Voices came to an end when she retired earlier this year, and Futrell, who is the director of choral activities at Elon University, seems enthusiastic to continue Voices' choral tradition in Chapel Hill.
John Leavitt's Hodie! A Cantata for Christmas, from which the program was named, is a modern work, yet its texts have origins in past centuries. The chorus handled the kaleidoscopic differences among the movements well, shining most with texts like "Hodie!," which was exuberant and energetic. These stylistic transitions were also properly aided by Voices' accompanist, Dr. Shoko Abe. Voices and Futrell also showcased their ability for careful phrasing with pieces like Russian composer Dmytro Bortniansky's "Cherubic Hymn No. 7" or "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming," a German carol arranged by David Maddux. The latter, an intricate, gentle setting, contained the most rubato of the night, showing the importance of communication between conductor and singers.
The addition of drums and bass supported two medleys of more familiar Christmas tunes – one with audience participation and one without. Afterwards, a set of four gospel-style arrangements, perhaps the highlight of the night for many, closed the concert. Vocalist Clarke Brown, student president of the Spelman Glee Club (under the direction of Johnson), joined Voices onstage for these and delighted the audience with her mesmerizing, improvisatory gospel vocals. With Johnson playing the piano, Brown and the other guest instrumentalists really connected with the larger ensemble. "We Are Christmas," by Sarah Bilaye-Benibo and arranged by Johnson, was powerful and uplifting in both meaning and musicality. As many holiday concerts tend to do, this program closed with "Hallelujah" – but not the expected version. This gospel-infused rendition changes rhythms and emphases slightly without losing the joy and exuberance of the original. Perhaps this bombastic style was an even better way to usher in Voices' latest season.