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Evidently the word is out on The Oakwood Waits. Or so it seemed on a brisk Sunday evening at Raleigh Moravian Church. There, a capacity crowd showed up to hear these imaginative performers as they began the celebration of their 25th year with a concert of songs and carols. In a program staged for the benefit of Hospice of Wake County, the singers presented a spectrum of Christmas songs from the familiar chestnuts to a delightful selection largely unknown to most hearers.
Any good dictionary (along with the Waits’ own program notes) will tell you that “wait” used as a noun harks back to old British usage, and refers to street musicians, most generally singers. The group, now seventeen members with Chorus Master Megan Crosson, further honors that era by garbing themselves in strictly authentic Dickensian costumes. Their origin can be traced to 1984 when a few residents of the Oakwood neighborhood in Raleigh gathered to sing carols for their friends. The rest, as they say, is a cappella history.
This history was emphasized early in the program. After the “processional” consisting of a few Christmas mainstays, the four active charter members (John Adams, Maggie Bunce, Haskell Fitz-Simons, and Dan Mason) offered a fine quartet version of the English Traditional “How Far Is It to Bethlehem?” Since the group lacked a second treble voice, Mason compensated with his combination alto/countertenor.
The evening consisted of some thirty selections, with fewer than a third of them old worn out standards. The musicianship evident in these Christmas pieces was generally nothing short of stunning. In one notably splendid row were the old Dutch “If Ye Would Hear the Angels Sing,” the French Canadian “Huron Carol” from 1683, and “Sussex Carol,” an English traditional. A highlight in a similar vein was “O Jesulien Suss” (O Jesus Sweet). Here the singers introduced a real charmer of an old German carol that predates even Bach, since it was he who harmonized it into its present form.
William Dawson’s “Mary Had a Baby” featured soprano Erin O’Hara in a fine treatment of this familiar spiritual. The English traditional “Masters In This Hall” and George Woodward’s “Past Three A’Clock” constituted further examples of masterly music, the latter serving as a “recessional” of sorts for Part One.
It would be a shame not to mention “The Carol of the Birds” from Catalonia, one of the most sublime and haunting anthems in the literature, taxing the fine sopranos to their limit. Then there was “Judah’s Land,” an early American work of enormous appeal. To some, a “downer” of the Christmas season is being subjected to yet another rendition of Adolphe Adam’s “O Holy Night.” This group even made that piece sound fresh.
Informal staging and banter are integral to the organization. Various of the singers throughout the program presented informative facts and anecdotes about the members or the upcoming numbers or both. Memorizing these little tidbits rather than reading them from a script would enhance programming that lacks little in the way of improvement.
It was a large and enthusiastic crowd. For them, both Ebenezer Scrooge and The Grinch have been effectively banished for at least the rest of this season.