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Choral Music Review

Raleigh Oratorio Society: Fine Music, Fuzzy Math

December 8, 2001 - Raleigh, NC:

The Raleigh Oratorio Society continued its 60th anniversary celebrations as it made its Meymandi Concert Hall debut with a combination retrospective and holiday concert on the afternoon of December 8. The group had earlier appeared in Meymandi with the NC Symphony in Verdi's Requiem, but this was its first concert on its own in the new venue.

The program began with the ROS' Chamber Choir performing Vivaldi's Gloria, a work that has enjoyed many airings by diverse ensembles. For this, the 22 singers were seated in front of a chamber orchestra that consisted of members of the NCS and area freelance instrumentalists. The soloists, all members of the choir, stood for their various contributions. Alfred E Sturgis, who considered moving to Indianapolis but has decided to remain in the Triangle, conducted.

The large venue, which was perhaps a third full, is still on its shakedown cruise. The Chamber Choir is composed of outstanding singers, and their work was clear, crisp, precise and consistently enjoyable. Balance with the orchestra was good, and Sturgis led the piece with enthusiasm. From the back of the main floor, however, the sound lacked impact, making one think that when small groups perform in Meymandi, a shell of some sort may be required.

The second group involved selections from Bach's Christmas Oratorio, sung by the 200-voice Symphonic Choir. This "oratorio" is one of the master's most unwieldy works because it is actually a series of six cantatas, intended for performances on different days during the Christmas season. Excepts from parts I, II and VI were chosen because the Society's roots stem from a performance of the piece by the Saint Cecilia Club, a women's chorus, augmented by male singers for the occasion, in December 1940; that concert was carried nationwide over one of NBC's radio networks. For the anniversary program, the opening and closing parts of the first and last cantata here bracketed the first and last sections of the second one. The net result was pleasing but failed to give a true impression of the score, which includes numerous numbers for solo vocalists. The chorus, which was not particularly well illuminated, was seated by sections in the hall's choir stalls--there are twice as many women as men, so arranging the vocalists by quartets is not an option. The several soloists, all members of the ROS, sang their brief sections where they stood. Since a chamber orchestra provided the accompaniment and was positioned near the lip of the stage, there was a considerable distance between Sturgis and his choir, but the coordination was precise and the balance was for the most part good, although the sound seemed to reach the back of the hall in distinct layers, with the choir on top, the timpani and brasses in the middle, and the strings on the bottom tier. It might have helped if some or all of the singers had been more or less on the same level as the band - and in this case there was plenty of room at the back of the stage to have accommodated them.

For the second part of the concert, we moved up to the top balcony, where experience has shown the sound to be better than on the main floor, and - sure enough - the sonic impact was greater as the Symphonic Choir performed five carols, arranged by John Rutter. The sound seemed better balanced and blended, and the results were for the most part impressive, although the words did not always emerge clearly. (A program insert contained texts and translations of the Vivaldi and the Bach only.) The Chamber Choir's contribution to this half included still lighter seasonal fare, accompanied by pianist Allen Bailey; these singers would surely have benefited from a shell. The grand finale was the Hallelujah Chorus, from Handel's Messiah, sung by the combined choirs. For this, the Chamber Choir stood directly behind the orchestra, and their presence there seemed to provide the acoustical link between the band and their Symphonic Choir colleagues that had been missing earlier.

After experiencing the ROS' two choirs with various accompaniments in our new hall, it is clear that additional fine-tuning of the venue is needed. Those tweakings should include acoustical adjustments and figuring out how to control the temperature, too - it was very cold. Changes in the lobby's harsh lighting are likewise still needed, and when leaving the upper balcony, patrons are blinded by glare from unshielded fixtures. The lobby itself is also far too small to be decorated with the various strange pots (or whatever) that now clog it.

Now about that fuzzy math.... For as long as I've been enjoying the ROS - and my experience with it dates back nearly 50 years - I have believed that the group was formed in September 1942 and gave its first concert during the Easter Season of 1943. A history of the Society by former ROS President Elaine J. Williams, contained in the anniversary program book, confirms this time-frame, but on December 8, 2001, Sturgis informed the Meymandi audience that the group began "60 years ago today." That would be a year after the aforementioned augmented St. Cecilia broadcast and the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor--not likely, and not confirmed in the published history, which explains that NBC asked for a repeat of the Christmas Oratorio in 1941 but "supporting funds were not easily available." The formation of the Society in September 1942 could be verified by checking its charter, and the group's first performance was almost certainly April 11, 1943. Nine and a half years ago, for Spectator Magazine , I reviewed the Society's 50th anniversary concert, presented several months prematurely on May 16, 1992, and recapped some of its history. Among other things, I mentioned then that the ROS had received the Raleigh Medal of Arts during a ceremony in City Hall on May 26, 1992--which the current anniversary book erroneously claims was awarded in 1991. The ability to count is a fundamental prerequisite for successful music making. Someone needs to research the history of this group before it observes its 75th anniversary! From our perspective, the ROS has once again popped the cork a bit early.