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In this age of COVID, many traditions have fallen by the wayside, including presentations of Nutcrackers, Messiahs, Hansels, and such – perennial money-makers for their ballet, choral, and operatic presenters, respectively. But the estimable Duke Chorale managed to continue its big holiday tradition with a modified, relocated, technically upgraded offering of its annual Christmas Concert, based this time in the university's Baldwin Auditorium, with its 45 or so singers spread out (IAW CDC guidelines) on the stage and in the hall, in effect singing in the round with the estimable, forever young director Rodney Wynkoop* more or less in media res.
The music was typical of these concerts, expertly drawn from all over and ordered in a way that seemed to flow naturally as the program unfolded. There was a nice introduction and welcome, there were several readings and spoken intros, and the compositions took us from some artistic darkness ("In the Bleak Midwinter") to lightness to happiness and joy.
The complete program, which began with "The Holly and the Ivy" and included carols, hymns, spirituals, and lighter works, is here. The most recent composition performed was The Work of Christmas Dan Forrest (b.1978) – a piece that seems even more "traditional" than some of the other pieces that were sung.
The many soloists were all members of the choir, and their overall excellence speaks of good things to come, around the country, as these young people go out into the world to populate amateur and/or professional choruses everywhere – and also support them!
The piano accompaniments were by Chorale pianist Hye-Bin Song and, occasionally, Mary Hamilton. The organists – Abraham Ross, Joey Fala, and Jordan Prescott - were all from the Duke Organ Scholars program. (There's no organ in Baldwin, so these were all pre-pre-recorded, in a manner of speaking.)
Technically, things were on a relatively high plane. Although the video looked a bit washed out at first, some at-home adjustments soon remedied things. There were good shots of the stage area in the hall, with Zoom-like views of some of the singers as they performed wherever they happened to be. The audio was generally excellent, even if the acoustic varied from "in-person" numbers to things recorded in the chapel, the long reverb time of which was evident in the sing-alongs (in which the Chorale actually sang along with the selections with audience participation from pre-COVID recordings). There was some audio spotlighting of individual voices but rarely any more than one might experience when sitting off to one side or the other of a concert room.
When this program began, there were 182 people waiting online to see it. When it ended, 400+ were in attendance. That's a great thing, all 'round. Well done! Readers who missed it may readily revisit it by clicking here for the complete concert. Do check it out, and while you are at it, it's not too late to donate food or money to the Urban Ministries of Durham**, this year's beneficiary, or to a food bank near you.
PS Santa put in his (traditional) appearance.
So there's a lot to like about virtual concerts, and since this is my first review of one – we have a very deep bench at CVNC! – I want to share some reflections. You may wear whatever you want. You don’t have to leave early to find a good place to park. You don't have to pay to park. You may talk, disturbing no one but your bubble-mate(s). You may eat or drink (or both). You may bring your pets. You may get up and walk around. You can probably see better than you can in most halls. If you're lucky, the sound may be almost as good as the real thing. When it's over, you may be able to see and hear the whole program again – very helpful for easily-distractible critics, especially. Maybe we should stream concerts (for a fee) even after live performances resume and people start to venture out again.
And many organizations are getting a start on documenting their performances for posterity in both audio and video. This is a good thing.
What I am having a very hard time with is the approach to all this virtuality being taken by some of our larger performing organizations and presenters. Chamber music, for example, seems to rule the instrumental airwaves, even from our orchestras. That's not to say that their orchestral players shouldn't do smaller ensemble work, but recitals, trios, quartets, and such are typically the purview of chamber music presenters, not orchestras, and the chamber music presenters are struggling to survive, too – and anyway don't the orchestras have seasons upon seasons of recordings of actual orchestral concerts in their archives? I realize these older recordings have already been bought and paid for by previous audiences, but they are at once "live" performances and new, too, to listeners who have not already heard them. Why not revive some of the better ones, to keep alive among cloistered supporters the notion of what full orchestras actually sound like? (End of rant….)
*Wynkoop has avoided putting on the weight of directorial fame (in a manner of speaking), but he's been doing great choral work hereabouts for a very long time, and his many students and adult singers are all surely far better artists as a result than they might otherwise have been. His big chorus, the Choral Society of Durham, recently recognized his 35-year tenure with a presentation that, due to the pandemic, was a whole lot lower key than would otherwise have been the case. From their newsletter:
"When the strains of the Amen had barely faded away, we surprised Rodney with the announcement of a new CSD scholarship program, the Wynkoop Fellowships, to honor and celebrate his 35th anniversary as our director. The amazed Dr. Wynkoop was also presented with a witty, intricate fused-glass sculpture created by artist and CSD tenor Anne Brumbaugh as a visual interpretation of the Fellowships' aims. We love to think that these Wynkoop Fellowships – which will offer helping hands to qualified singers barred from membership for financial reasons – will perpetuate for years to come Rodney's dedication not only to our musical excellence but also to sharing the joy of choral singing with every part of our community. You'll be hearing a lot from us in the next few months about the program. It's been in planning for months, of course, but some of the details, understandably, have been waiting for completion until we could bring Rodney into the final planning. Now that he's in the know, we can forge ahead and develop the Fellowships in time for implementation in the 2021-2022 season. We're confident you'll agree that they're going to be a major enrichment of the Choral Society's – and Rodney's – legacy."
**Urban Ministries, 410 Liberty St. in Durham. Please drop off donations between 10 am -5 pm, Monday-Friday. Not local? Consider making a financial donation on their website. Don’t forget to mention the Duke Chorale when you donate!