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What is the most "festive" section of the orchestra? Is it the shimmering, soaring strings? The bold percussion or familiar piano? The lyrical and elaborate woodwinds? The North Carolina Symphony's Christmas concert surely looks a little different this year, but "Holiday Favorites with Brass and Organ" proposes that the shiniest section of the orchestra also packs the biggest punch of holiday cheer. Performances by NCS brass, organist David Jernigan, pianist Christopher James Lees, and vocalist Lindsay Kesselman formed a convincing thesis to this point.
To open the concert, Nate Hepler's brass quintet augmentation to Eugéne Gigout's organ work, Grand choeur dialogue, filled the reverberant sanctuary of Hayes Barton United Methodist Church in Raleigh. Any potential issues of capturing an accurate sound on video seemed to be nonexistent – even the more rapid melodies that organ and brass shared were completely unified. In a brief, fun interview with host Joseph Peters, horn player Rebekah Daley described her experience playing this concert as "drowning in sound" (in a good way). Even though nothing can quite replace the intense vibrations of hearing the pipe organ in person, a full, visceral sound was captured virtually from the concert's beginning.
The brass quintet, comprised of trumpet players Paul Randall and Don Eagle, hornist Daley, trombonist John Ilika, and tuba player Seth Horner, peppered the program with lush carols. "Carol of the Bells" was a highlight; the usually repetitive tune was made interesting again with Stephen McNeff's arrangement, full of intricate countermelodies and sharp dynamic shifts executed wonderfully by the quintet. Every time the brass ensemble was joined by organist Jernigan, the instruments complemented each other so well, it was as if a huge brass chorus had taken the stage.
While Jernigan is the Organist at Christ Church on Capitol Square, he played Hayes Barton Methodist's instrument as seamlessly as ever. From Bach's intricate and cheerful "Wachet auf, uns die Stimme" to the many-layered, dazzling Variations of "Adeste Fideles" (by Marcel Dupré), Jernigan brought deep, sonorous holiday joy to the program with his solo offerings.
Selections from soprano Kesselman, accompanied by pianist Lees, provided a new intimacy and variety to the program. Lees' own arrangement of "O Holy Night" was the perfect vehicle for Kesselman's soaring voice, and this song was perhaps most interesting when the soprano strayed from the melody for her own unique ornamentation. Another example of a recurring tune made interesting with an arrangement, Lees' transformation of the repetitive "The Twelve Days of Christmas" went above and beyond to embellish the familiar melody in new and unpredictable ways. The piano part alone could be its own performance, but with Kesselman it was magnificent. This duo concluded the concert with a short but jolly "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" (also Lees' arrangement), a fitting farewell – until 2021!