Cantari, a new, hand-picked, 24-member chorus led by Sue T. Klausmeyer, presented the first of three Christmas-season concerts at First Presbyterian Church on Sunday afternoon. The group, in its second year of concertising, is largely made up of members of the Chapel Hill Community Chorus (also conducted by Klausmeyer), with some added singers; there are six of each voice part (sopranos, altos, tenors, and basses). They are chosen by audition, and thus the blend of voices is shaped by the leader who in this case is a well-trained, experienced, and skilled vocal musician with a keen ear for choral sound. Several members of the ensemble sang solos during the concert, and almost all demonstrated exceptional vocal control and style. This is still a young group and it has some growing to do, but it is well worth hearing now and will no doubt fulfill high expectations in the years to come.

As with many choral concerts at this time of the year, the program was divided into two parts: a serious, classical part and a familiar and fun part, after intermission. It was hard for me to decide which part I enjoyed most. The concert opened with a 13th century piece from the Florence Manuscript, “Procedenti Puero – Eya! Novus annus est.” With hand drums and solo chants sung by Jamie Gorski and Jennifer Brigman, it was an ideal transition from the world of traffic, noise, and business to the awe-filled world of music.

This was followed by “Dadme albricias, hijos d’Eva” from the 16th century Venetian collection Villancicos de diuersos Autores…. The soloists were Laura Delauney, Von Cole, Frank Zachary, and Betsy Buchanan. It was sweet with the combination of renaissance pure harmony and chant.

The highlight of the first half of the program was Hernando Franco’s “Magnificat secundi toni” from the Franco Codex. Franco, a Spanish composer, lived from 1523 to 1585 and trained as a choirboy in the Segovia Cathedral with master teacher Geronimo de Espinar, who also taught the great Tomas Luis de Victoria. The “Magnificat” was masterfully sung, its overlapping entrances and cantus firmus providing a deeply moving blend of a cappella mysticism.

A second setting of the Magnificat, scored for eight-part chorus and organ by contemporary American composer Steven Sametz of Lehigh University, had some interesting contrasts and rich sounds, but in the First Presbyterian sanctuary was mostly loud to my ears.

The closing selection of the first half was pure delight. Noel Sing We (Three Flute Noels), by Canadian composer John Washburn, was written for choir, Native American flute, and soprano solo. It does not reference Native American music directly, but it does contain birdcalls and passages of echo-like singing that evoke the canyons and prairies of the Southwest. The Native American flute, played by Erica Alexander, was hauntingly beautiful, and soprano Jane Thurston’s rich and smooth voice was perfect for the mood of the piece.

The second half included “I Saw Three Ships,” “Deck the Halls,” “Gloucestershire Wassail,” “Fruit Cake,” “Silent Night,” “The Virgin Mary Had a Baby Boy,” “Go Tell It On the Mountain,” “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” and the “Twelve Days of Christmas.” A highlight was “Fruit Cake,” by Philip Hagemann and Penny Leka, featuring Jane Thurston, Sue Klausmeyer, Stephanie Ottone, Bill Heines, and Scott Goodwin. Each wore a chef’s hat and apron with appropriate ingredients in their hands and their own tune, sung in turn and then added on top of the others’ tunes, one at a time. It was a delightful mixture of vocal ingredients that almost made me hungry for that ubiquitous but often-maligned holiday treat they were singing about.

“I’ll Be Home for Christmas” reminded me of the ’40s when my older brother was in Germany: my sister-in-law’s eyes glistened whenever she heard that song. John Rutter’s setting of the familiar “Twelve Days of Christmas” concluded the program with accompanist Frank Zachary at the piano. Five golden rings were raised by choristers in the middle of the choir, almost at the appropriate times, and finally, on the last verse, an actual – well, not actually actual – partridge in a pear tree appeared timidly in front of the golden rings. It was great fun. This choral ensemble is impressive already and will get even better with more singing together. They have an impressive spring concert already planned and two repeats of this concert coming up.

Please refer to for the times and locations of performances on December 7 and 9.