The chamber choir of the Concert Singers of Cary has been around, in various incarnations – the personnel keep changing – for several seasons, but till now the “small group” has been a mere adjunct to the larger choir, although they appeared with the Raleigh Symphony Orchestra in part of a program last year. It was news, then, and well worth the trip to a non-traditional venue – the Cary Senior Center, on Maury O’Dell Place (near Bond Municipal Park) – to hear the 24-voices of the Cary Choral Artists entirely on their own. The program was built on a theme, and the selected music supported it admirably. The relatively small audience received a booklet that was attractively arranged and contained texts, translations and some supplemental information (not all of which was in the same order as the program itself), but Artistic Director Lawrence Speakman introduced the numbers, too, in some cases bringing to his informal remarks some pretty remarkable information. Alas the venue itself, with an unusually noisy ventilation system, left something to be desired, but it was better than some of the Town of Cary’s other halls.

Many of the works were sung a cappella, but three accompanists were on hand – pianist Linda Velto, flutist Susan Brown, and percussionist Jack Roller, who is MD of Meredith’s String Orchestra. Short chestnuts by Morely, Passereau, and Wilbye got things underway; many of us have sung these pieces, here or there, but few have delivered “Now Is the Month of Maying,” “Il est bel et bon,” and “Sweet Honey-Sucking Bees” with such precision and restraint. Handel’s “No di voi non vó fidarmi” is better known in recycled form, as “For unto us a child is born”; hearing this first take by the composer – and perhaps it wasn’t even his initial use of the theme – was an unexpected delight. David C. Dickau’s setting of “If Music Be the Food of Love” flows like a great but gentle river, while György Orbán’s “Daemon Irrept Callidus,” which sounds like a rip from Carl Orff, served as a contrasting wake-up-and-smell-the-coffee call. The only recognizable text in a short selection from Brent Michael Davids’ Native American Suite were the words “I don’t care if you’re married sixteen times, I still love you yet oh honey dear” so that, too, was a wake-up call of sorts. All these pieces commented on aspects of love and thus supported the program’s basic theme, “Heart Rendering.” They were delivered with skill and relish, and the technical expertise of the singers, and surely the preparation they received, was apparent pretty much throughout, although the tempo of the opening piece made it difficult for the choristers to spit out all the words. The Davids song (“Apache ’49′”) was attractive – and short – enough that one wished the entire suite had been performed. Part one ended with Stephen Paulus’ Personals, which we’ll address in a moment.

The shorter second half began with Vaughan Williams’ radiant setting of “Loch Lomond.” Gail Kubik’s “Oh, dear! What can the matter be” flew like the wind and the words were not always clear, but surely most people in attendance knew them. Speakman’s comments about the genesis of René Clausen’s “Set Me As a Seal” (from A New Creation) brought new levels of meaning and understanding to a short choral work that has rapidly acquired “classic” status; an email from the composer to members of a choral newsgroup explained that it flowed from Clausen’s pen in the wake of the still-born delivery of a child under what must have been harrowing emotional circumstances…. This has always come across as an exceptional and exceptionally engaging piece, and now we know one more reason why.

The second part of the program was capped, as was the first, with music by Paulus, who is perhaps best known for his contributions to Garrison Keillor’s long-running radio show, but whose richly varied music has been performed by artists ranging from Thomas Hampson to Doc Severinson; see his bio, at [inactive 2/05], for details. He’s one of those composers who can set virtually anything to music, as the two fairly substantial works given by the Cary Choral Artists demonstrate. The first, Personals, settings of four personal ads from the Village Voice, was absolutely in keeping with the concert’s overall theme. It’s hard to imagine what someone who doesn’t speak English would make of them, for they are expertly crafted bits of music, imaginatively written, attractively varied and – surprisingly, perhaps – often quite touching. They work well as pure music, and the texts add interest and/or wit. Part two ended with A Place of Hope, which is an entirely different kettle of fish. Its four parts are taken from writings by patients at the Mayo Clinic, and they are, for the most part, fervent statements of thanks and hope. Speakman explained that they are dedicated to doctors and caregivers, and the moving words are enveloped in appropriately moving music that soothes and calms the listener much as the words surely soothed and calmed speakers/writers and the first hearers/readers. Here’s a big bravo to Speakman and his artists for such good programming of music by this and other contemporary composers during this outstanding evening of outstanding singing.