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The Bel Canto Company, under the sensitive leadership of artistic director and conductor Welborn E. Young, presented its 37th holiday concert – "Candle, Star, Joyous Light" – at Christ United Methodist Church in Greensboro. One expects the highest quality of music-making from this vocal ensemble, and Young and Company did not disappoint the large crowd seeking uplifting cheer.
The evening began with the colorful "Alleluia, venite gaudete" (Come let us worship, Alleluia), arranged by Gary Fry. A fast but regal opening wove snippets of "Oh Come All Ye Faithful" into a fanfare that built in intensity until the 50-voice BCC and 20+ Greensboro Youth Chorus entered with full-throated "Alleluia." The five-minute work, accompanied by organ (masterfully played by André Lash) and spiked by glockenspiel bells (Jacob Stephens), alternated singing from the young and the more mature choirs and provided a celebratory launch of the program.
The mood changed dramatically with Morten Lauridsen's gentle 1997 "O Nata Lux" (O Light born of Light). This composition, which begins and ends softly, with tight harmonies, was exquisitely sung by BCC.
The GYC, under the direction of Rebecca Suco, sang the "The Holy Lights" by Allen Shawn. Featuring both Hebrew and English texts, the composition alternates between tender singing and more raucous passages enlivened by clapping. The choir displayed impressive blend, with fine piano playing by accompanist Christina Van Wagenen.
The youth choir returned in the second half to sing "Dashing Through the Snow," arranged by John Leavitt, and "Ding Dong Merrily on High," arranged by Howard Cable. The former proved to be a catchy, syncopated number. The latter is a winning version of the well-known tune with a tricky piano interlude, flawlessly played by Van Wagenen.
With a couple of exceptions, the entire first half featured music written or arranged by American composers. I've often thought that one of Young's gifts is his ability to choose repertoire that features both familiar songs in new arrangements with more contemporary compositions resulting in a program of rich variety.
Assistant conductor Colin Burns took over the direction of the next three numbers. "Carol of the Bells," arranged by SOLOS, employed a smaller choir of about 20 BCC singers and a subtle drum accompaniment. "The Season of Light" by Jacob Narverud, also sung by the smaller ensemble, is an unaccompanied piece featuring tight harmonies resolving to a lovely unison at the end.
The full company returned for "O Holy Night," composed by Adolphe Adam, as arranged by René Clausen. The familiar tune was set with flowing accompaniment supplied by BCC accompanist Christy Wisuthseriwong.
Young explained his love for "Little Drummer Boy," which stems back to his childhood, when he would watch a Claymation version of the song on his black and white TV, clad in his PJs. This arrangement by Ted Arthur featured the men of the BCC – a "rethinking," according to Young. This somewhat unruly setting featured a syncopated repeated rhythm laid down by pianist Wisuthseriwong with a trap set underpinning. Sparkling piano and trap set also accompanied Will Todd's winning arrangement of "We Three Kings."
Later the women were featured in "Nova!," a composition by BCC member Bill Snedden. A sprightly organ accompanied this spikey composition.
The first half ended with a beautiful setting of "The Work of Christmas" by Dan Forrest with text by Howard Thurman . Again, exquisite tuning and blend was displayed by the entire BCC brought forth by Young's delicate touch.
Burns returned to the podium to lead John Rutter's "Rejoice and Be Merry." The dance-like piece was accompanied by organ and alternated women's and men's voices. He also led "The Christmas Song," an unaccompanied languid, smooth jazz arrangement by Jerry Rubino.
Soloist Brittany Griffin was featured in "This Christmastide" by Donald Fraser. Her lovely voice was featured over a gentle flowing piano part. Later the music becomes more dramatic, and her wailing descant rises above the choir.
The Quintessentials (Sarah Chowning, Liz Doebler, Talia Falcon, Austin Jeffries, and Tandy Brown) presented a fetching arrangement of "The First Noel" (by Avi Kaplan, Scott Hoying, Kevin Olusola and Ben Bram) which gave each of the five the opportunity to shine as soloist.
"The darker side" of Christmas (according to Young) was found in the delightful, jazzy "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" by Albert Hague, arranged by Voctave.
The program ended with "I Saw Three Ships," arranged by Mack Wilberg. Glistening four-hand piano accompanied the well-known tune, solidly played by Wisuthseriwong and BCC member Anne Lewis. Toss in glockenspiel and handbells, and you had everything needed for a joyous conclusion.
The BCC and GYC surrounded the audience for the traditional encore: the gorgeously evocative "Silent Night" arranged by Craig Courtney.
This program repeats on Monday, December 9. See our sidebar for details.