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Choral Music Review

NC Master Chorale's Mixed Holiday Program

December 14, 2003 - Raleigh, NC:

Holiday concerts come in all manner of shapes and sizes, and sometimes they come in overwhelming profusion. Such was the case over the weekend of December 12-14, when the Big Three choirs of the Triangle (and several more groups that aren't driven by the principle that ensemble size matters) did their respective things. Two of the biggies and one other group again overlapped their customary pairs of holiday offerings directly, which was maddening for fans of choral music and difficult for critics, and never mind the marketing challenges as these outfits competed for a probably-finite number of potential ticket-buyers....

The NC Master Chorale and its Chamber Choir opted for Meymandi Concert Hall, a splendid venue for orchestral music that has choir stalls above the orchestra's platform. The program listed around 170 singers in the larger group and another 21 in the small one, but the ranks were, for whatever reason, thinner than that. The program began with around 130 vocalists, split into two choirs, in the elevated choir stalls, with trumpets, performing Samuel Schiedt's antiphonal "In Dulci Jubilo," the first of a series of German baroque carols and motets that graced the opening half of the program. There was then a long pause while the singers regrouped for the rest of the concert, during which lull Music Director Alfred E. Sturgis did his best to entertain the small crowd with a "stump the Maestro" game that permitted him to advertise the NCMC's CDs and give away a couple of them to delighted patrons. The Chamber Choir's a cappella performances of Praetorius' "Singt und klingt" and "O Little One Sweet" (harmonized by Bach) were lovely, restrained, and thoroughly artistic, with clearly audible words. The small choir's position on the orchestral risers, close to the director, surely helped them fill the copious hall with sound. The other two selections in this group, sung by the large choir, which was partly arrayed at the back of the stage and partly in the stalls above, proved less successful. The words didn't make much impact, and the singing didn't envelop the listeners to the extent the smaller but more forward Chamber Choir had done. Brass accompaniment for Leonhard Schroeter's "Joseph, Dearest Joseph Mine" and an electronic organ, played by Susan Lohr, for Heinrich Schütz's "Das Wort ward Fleisch" provided variety and sonic richness. (Meymandi needs a real organ!)

The Chorale continued with Jonathan Willcocks' outstanding Magnificat, written for Don Coleman's Hickory Choral Society. It's a bold and joyous work, richly festive, accompanied by organ, brass (four trumpets, three trombones, and tuba), and percussion. Soloists Deborah Kloos and Caron Daley sang well, and the music made an altogether favorable impression as the five movements unfolded. The text incorporates "There is no rose of such virtue" in the fourth section, and the grand finale, a great Gloria, is a stem-winder of considerable proportions.

The second half brought lighter, more typical seasonal fare. The Chamber Choir, again close to the front of the stage, sounded wonderful in some unusual selections - an Ave Maria by Wayne Oquin (b.1977), a second version of "There Is No Rose," by Gary Garcia (b.1954), and "Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day" by John Gardner (b.1917). It seemed a shame to squander these singers' skills on "I'll Be Home for Christmas" and a Swingle-Singers-esque version of the "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy," and Brubeck's jazzy "We Three Kings" might have done better as an encore, but the vocalism was expert throughout. That Tchaikovsky bit provided an excuse - if one were needed - for Sturgis to plug Carolina Ballet's upcoming performances of the real thing; he is the Ballet's Music Director, too....

The concert ended with the Chorale singing five attractive carols, including David Willcock's arrangement of "God Rest You Merry Gentlemen" and two by John Rutter.

Pondering this concert after the fact, it is clear that the NCMC should consider having the large choir stand closer to the audience. A sparsely-filled hall is a downer for the performers and the audience, too, but part of the problem on this occasion was surely the great distance from the main group of vocalists to the people in the auditorium.