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The Abbey Basilica, a signature building on the Belmont Abbey College campus, is an admirable place for a community gathering during the Yuletide season, so it was a little disappointing that dire forecasts of foul winter weather kept so many locals away from this year's Arts at the Abbey Holiday concert. Rain wasn't expected to turn to snow and sleet for another five hours, so I had no qualms about hitting the highway for the 25-mile trip – after making sure the show would go on. Beginning with Abbey organist, chorus leader, and voice class instructor Karen Hite Jacob's inaudible welcome over an underpowered PA system, the concert didn't launch with the celebratory spirit I had expected. After witnessing the debut of the 86-member Charlotte Master Chorale the previous evening, I presumed that the Abbey Chorus would be smaller but at least the size of Chanticleer, a 12-man outfit when last I reviewed them a decade ago.
The Abbey Chorus had nine members, not all of them students. Also on hand were a quintet from the voice class and three young instrumentalists. Grouped on the steps leading up towards the altar, the Abbey Chorus began in a studious manner albeit a bit nervously. It would be unfair to say they were informally dressed, but they were neither gaily attired in holiday fashion nor uniformly dressed, as one might have expected of a formally constituted choral organization, even in this academic setting. When they began singing "Bright the Holly Berries" and then "Angel's Lullaby," it was evident that the rudiments of performing on stage weren't a major part of their curriculum.
Justifications for the Abbey Chorus' nervousness began to fade when they reached "Bring a Torch," where the singers, three women and six men, began to harmonize more smoothly and veer toward confidence. "God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen" was even better, and I detected a smile on one of the ladies' faces. Interspersed with appearances by the voice class and the instrumentalists, the chorus sang two more sets before joining with the voice class – and the audience – for a parting bouquet of songs. Each new chorus set was better than the last. The unfamiliar song ‒ John Rutter's "Donkey Song" and his setting for Shakespeare's "Blow, Thou Winter Wind" (from As You Like It) ‒ outshone Loonis McGlohon's arrangement of the traditional "Silent Night" by Franz Xaver Gruber. While the song brought little cheer to the singers' faces, I'm sure the act of singing to a donkey carrying Mary, watching over the newborn Jesus, and sleeping in his manger stall before encouraging him to skip for joy as he went on his way brought many a smile throughout the hall.
I thought the Abbey Chorus singers were at their best when they were most challenged, in their final set ‒ particularly in Antonio Lotti's setting of "Regina Coeli," where the ensemble's harmonizing rose to the stratospheric level the composer invokes. With "While Shepherds Watched," it was good to see that Nahum Tate had survived the ancient drubbing he took from Alexander Pope in The Dunciad with this fine setting by Lowell Mason. "All Is Calm. All Is Bright" was the most fascinating selection of the evening, redeeming the earlier inclusion of "Silent Night" with a new musical setting of the same Joseph Mohr lyric by John Michael Trotta.
Of the three movements that Margaret Mauney performed on viola from Bach's Suite 1 in G, I most enjoyed the lilt of her playing on the Courante. Paired with harpist Ashleigh Jones on "Greensleeves" and this time playing her violin, Mauney was more relaxed, with comparable results. Jones ranked for me as the revelation of the evening, for the sound of her beautiful harp filled the hall more fully than I would have imagined as she opened with Marilyn Marzuki's arrangement of "As Lately We Watched." Even when I was accustomed to the opulent sound, the effect was still beatific when Jones concluded her soloing with Marzuki's arrangement of Adolphe Adam's "O Holy Night." Part of the wonder of the sound emanating from Jones' harp was that it immediately followed – and measured up to – Caleb Kualii's performance at the Abbey's baby grand. Kualii was no slouch, either, playing Charles Grobe's "Adeste Fidelis with Variations." At least one of the movements was in 3/4 time, and Kualii didn't shrink from the infectious sway of it.
Jacob remained busy at three different keyboards during the evening, starting out at a cunning little portable when she led and accompanied the Abbey Chorus, moving over to the piano for the voice class' selections, and concluding at the house organ, where she startled me a little, suddenly bringing the mighty pipes at the rear of the hall to life. There was a quaint family feeling as the five members of the vocal class (two men and three women) huddled up behind Jacob at the keyboard for their segment and sang "Gentle Jesus, Meek and Mild" followed by "Winter Wonderland." From this wee sampler, I preferred the students' style in the sacred piece to their seasonal effort.
With hymnals nestled conveniently in the backs of the benches in front of us, it was easy for the audience to stand and join the combined Abbey Chorus and vocal class in a community singing of "Angels from the Realms" and "O Come All Ye Faithful." The sudden blast from the organ loft added to this special moment. If you knew the tunes or could readily sight read, there was no difficulty at all in keeping up with the performers through multiple stanzas, and a celebratory vibe finally swept the hall. Between these lovely hymns, there was a satisfying union of the chorus and vocal class on "Alleluia, Gelobet sei Gott." Aside from Francis Browne's translation of Erdmann Neumeister's original lyric, Jacob's handy program notes pointed out that this song, taken from Bach's Cantata 142 for Christmas Day, is now widely considered to be by Johann Kuhnau, Bach's predecessor as Thomaskantor in Leipzig.
Going forward, the Abbey Chorus may wish to consider upgrading its performance practices to include some sort of uniform concert attire and work on projecting a more favorable and inviting image to accompany its generally reliable vocalism.