Greeensboro’s Bel Canto Company is celebrating its 20th anniversary this season with three programs (seven concerts) in Christ United Methodist Church, which is also the home of the Triad’s Music for a Great Space series. On February 1 came the first of two presentations of the Company’s second program, entitled “Music for Mid-Winter” and consisting of vocal chamber works by Brahms, a wartime choral piece by Britten, a gorgeous group of songs to Robert Graves poems by Morten Lauridsen, and a closing group of spirituals, in honor of Black History Month. One of the latter was by Greensboro’s own Ted Hunter, and before it was performed, David Pegg, conductor of the 27-voice Bel Canto Society, asked for a moment of silence, as requested by Hunter, in memory of Columbia ‘s crew. In truth, however, it was the opening Brahms numbers that served as the program’s most fitting memorial to the astronauts. Perhaps Brahms will become the norm for our mourning of fallen space explorers, in a way that Mozart’s Requiem has come to be the memorial music of choice for 9/11 commemorations.

As Tim Linderman’s excellent program notes (and the Society’s calendar announcements) revealed, the Brahms offerings began and ended with settings of “Warum” (“Why”) as found, firstly, in the motet “Warum ist das Licht gegeben,” Op. 74/1, and then in “Warum doch erschallen,” the last of four quartets in Op. 92. The motet is a wonderful albeit rarely-heard a cappella work on texts from the Bible and Martin Luther (ending with Brahms’ version of a Bach-like chorale), and the Company sang it magnificently, using shaded dynamics and high degrees of precision in all respects. The fifteen women then sang four early Songs, Op. 17, which use texts from various sources and are accompanied by two horns (Tim Pappenbrock and Patrick Turner) and harp (Julie Hammarback). A slight coordination error in the first number, involving the harp, did not appreciably detract from the pleasure these serene, mostly somber numbers provided, and the unusual accompaniments further enhanced the pleasure of the large audience, although one could imagine German choirs doing more with the so-called dental consonants (which happen to be the consonants in the word “dental”). The first half ended with piano accompaniment for all of the Four Quartets, Op. 92, the texts of which, like the women’s numbers, come from diverse poets. For some reason, accompanist Cathy West’s piano was reversed from the normal position, so the lid was opened, on its short stick, toward the choir. As a result, the sound was somewhat muffled – a pity, since Brahms wrote some wonderful music for the keyboard. Still, the group’s performances left little to be desired in these generally autumnal numbers, which ended with “Why do songs resound heavenward?” – an ideal question for a day like February 1.

Britten’s “Ballad of Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard” found the Society’s dozen men in good form for a sad little story of infidelity and murder – a tale oft’ recounted in folk songs – that would doubtless have upset less liberal churches than this one.

Lauridsen has become one of our leading choral composers – his music has been recorded by the Bel Canto Company – and his “Mid-Winter Songs” were marvelous to hear and experience. They meshed well with the evening’s other offerings, underscored Pegg’s (and his singers’) commendable commitment to music by living composers, and were beautifully realized in nearly every respect, although here, too, the somewhat muffled piano remained a bit of a problem, particularly in the score’s several extended interludes.

The concert ended with four spirituals – Moses Hogan’s arrangement of “Ev’ry Time I Feel the Spirit,” Jester Hairston’s, of “Elijah Rock,” Hunter’s “I’ve Got a Home in That Rock,” and William Dawson’s “Soon-ah Will Be Done.” That’s pretty distinguished company, and Hunter’s setting more than held its own. He and the performers (including soloists Lyn Koonce and Gerald Whittington) were warmly applauded by the grateful crowd. The single encore was a reverent reading of “Shenandoah.”

At 20, the Bel Canto Company is perhaps the senior “professional” choir in our region. Pegg’s closest competitors would seem to be Rodney Wynkoop’s Vocal Arts Ensemble and the more-recently-established chamber sub-division of the NC Master Chorale (formerly the Raleigh Oratorio Society).

The work of the Bel Canto Company has spread well beyond Greensboro, thanks to its series of fine self-produced and commercial recordings. This is a truly outstanding ensemble, led by an inspired and inspiring director, and the acoustics of its Greensboro home, Christ United Methodist Church, are splendid. It would be worth the time of any admirer of fine choral singing to make a trip to the Triad to hear them. The program reviewed here will be repeated on February 3 (with different soloists in the spirituals), and the group’s next concerts will be given on May 3 and 5. See our series tab for details.