A colorful holiday audience packed the small (460 seats) Pauline Theater of the Hayworth Fine Arts Center on the festive campus of High Point University, while a large chorus (165 singers) and an orchestra of 37, all dressed in black, commanded the attention and respect of all who came to listen to the Magnificat of John Rutter.

The concert began with crisp and clean performances of two Leroy Anderson classics, the Christmas Festival and the popular Sleigh Ride. The chamber orchestra of 37 played exceedingly well for an orchestra assembled for the occasion from 8 students, 11 excellent HPU faculty members and a dozen or more members of the Winston-Salem Symphony. The orchestra was conducted with clarity and precision by Danny Fry of the HPU Music Faculty.

Englishman John Rutter (b.1945) is certainly one of the most popular composers of choral works in the U.S., and with good cause – he is rarely aggressively dissonant and mixes interesting rhythmic patterns and prefers modal harmony. He is a master of both voicing and orchestration – his most sublime moments often occur in very soft a cappella passages. He has written large quantities of liturgical music, endearing him to every choir director in the country.

This work, as with the text of the Magnificat in general, is meant to elevate the Virgin Mary as Mother of Jesus, and is therefore appropriate to the Christmas season. The Magnificat of J. S. Bach is perhaps the best known of the genre, and served Rutter as an example. Like Bach, he interspersed non-liturgical text as well as text from other liturgical sources among the traditional texts of the Magnificat, drawn from St. Luke (Chapter 1, verses 46-55).

Rutter is also well known for his recordings with the Cambridge Singers, a group he formed in 1981. The chorus assembled for the HPU Holiday Concert is formed of over a hundred students from the several choruses of High Point University (Christina Elkins, dir.) combined with the fifty voices of the near-by Glenn High School Concert Choir (Carol Ammons Earnhardt, dir.). There is something endearing about the purity of sound of young voices (no divas, yet!) and this combined chorus of young voices lent itself well to a work such as the Rutter Magnificat. Their intonation was excellent, as well as the ensemble work and dynamic control. Surely much of this is due to the inspiration of their conductor, Marc Foster, Chair of the HPU Department of Music.

The opening of the Magnificat, inspired by the hemiola rhythm typical of popular Hispanic music (think: Ev’ry thing’s Fine in a-Me-Ri-Ca from West Side Story) uses this exuberant rhythm to typify the exultation of the birth of Jesus. The second section, “Of a Rose, A Lovely Rose” is an allegory of Mary. The “Quia fecit mihi magna” (although in three) is like one of Respighi’s inexorable crescendos – leading to another interpellation from the Ordinary of the Mass, the famous “Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus” which is often bombastic (as in the masses of Verdi and Berlioz), but in Rutter’s version, soft and gentle, starting with the lovely alto voices of the chorus.

Leading without a break into the fourth section, “Et misericordia,” we were able to appreciate the lovely voice of mezzo-soprano Candice Burrows, a member of the voice faculty of HPU. Perfectly suited to both the size of the hall and the style of the work of Rutter, she also delivered a lovely “Esurientes” and especially the quasi-recitativo Prayer to Saint Mary in the closing “Gloria Patria.” The only misfortune was in her placement to the side of stage right, where the acoustics changed each time she turned her head even a small bit. There must be a “Sweet spot” near the center of the stage!

The audience expressed its appreciation of the performance with a standing but short-lived ovation. The performance is repeated Saturday, December 1, 2012 at 7:30 p.m. For details, see the sidebar.