Just when you thought you’d scream if you heard another version of  “The First Noel” or “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” (add your own repeating favorite), along comes a concert that includes seasonal carols and songs that, for the most part, are unfamiliar to the average pedestrian. Duke Chapel played host to the Choral Society of Durham (CSD), Rodney Wynkoop conductor, as they presented their 2006 Christmas concert. (Let’s drop the politically correct pretense and just call it what it is.) While the first half consisted of mostly lesser known German carols, after intermission we were treated to one of the great choral masterpieces – Magnificat by J.S. Bach.

The CSD is a community chorus now in its 57th year – larger and more accomplished than ever before. It is 150 voices strong, and they have performed in recent years with the North Carolina Symphony and also have released three CDs. More information on this organization can be found on their website: http://www.choral-society.org/.

As in all of the other seasonal concerts, this first half was mostly an arranger’s medium. It is no small musical challenge to retain the original while also making it new and interesting to the singers and the audience. This concert had some of the most respected in the field including David Willcocks and John Rutter. The program began with “As it fell upon a night” – a setting of a 16th century German hymn. Right away you could sense the disciplined sound of a well-trained choir – even on a one-rehearsal-per-week schedule. However, even the best sometimes gets derailed and a split decision needs to be made on how to proceed. The start of the gorgeous “Lo, how a rose e‘er blooming” was not in synch in the first measure, and Wynkoop correctly decided to just start again instead of trying to get everyone lined up eventually. It proceeded flawlessly in a traditional but excellent adaptation by Daniel Gawthrop. One of the more entertaining carols of the evening was “Da droben vom Berge”– an Austrian Alpine yodel carol.  It would have really been special to have an actual yodeler, but you could almost hear it within the music. There were several soloists – all women – throughout this portion of the concert. Most of the selections were sung a cappella, and the mammoth choir displayed a remarkable unanimity of color, attack and style.

When “As lately we watched,” the final carol listed, ended, the choir did not seem to want to leave. This was because there was a surprise presentation to Dr. Wynkoop commemorating his 20th year as conductor of the CSD.  It was announced that a commissioned piece is in the works in Wynkoop’s honor and then the choir sang, “Ding, Dong Merrily on High” as the honoree sat and listened in a very emotional moment.  

As lovely as the first half was, the magnet for this concert was Bach and his magnificent Magnificat. Unlike his other major choral works, this is much shorter and has a more joyous and extroverted style.  A relatively large orchestra (for baroque works) consisting of some of the finest musicians joined the choir for a performance that was at least on par with any performance of this work anytime, anywhere by any other group. Don Eagle, Ken Raskin and Van Zimmerman, trumpeters, were all high, bright and clear in the opening chorus, which is a perfect musical evocation of happiness. The chorus ran through treacherous melismatic scales that were rhythmically stable and with focused intonation.

Alto Krista River had the most exposure of the four soloists, and she alone was worth the price of admission. Soprano Heather Buck had only the one aria – “Quia respexit humilitatem” – and she overcame a potentially disastrous start to pull out an excellent performance. Bass soloist Joshua Sekoski has roots in this area, and he is rapidly becoming a nationally known artist in major operatic roles.

I was fortunate to have a seat near the front so the sound got to my ears before it had the chance to roll around the 80-foot ceiling. Up close you can hear the remarkable rhythmic solidity of the orchestra and singers, which is half the battle in an effective presentation of this music. Especially noteworthy was the solid foundation laid down by cellists Virginia Hudson and Lisa Ferebee and Robbie Link, bass.

One parting note concerns the music as the audience was leaving. Anyone walking around Duke’s west campus everyday at 5 p.m. will hear the sounds of the carillon filling the air. Most of the time we don’t pay much notice to what’s being played. On this date however, Duke University Carilloneur Samuel Hammond was playing a remarkable arrangement of the G minor fugue from Bach’s unaccompanied violin sonata. Also played on organ and guitar, this unique transcription made everyone stop and listen. It was an unexpected bonus to a perfect winter afternoon’s music.