Coping with crisisThe Choral Society of Durham concert, tagged “Ding Dong Merrily Online,” featured reprised performances from the 2019 Christmas program and COVID-19-adapted performances under the direction of the remarkable Rodney Wynkoop, who has been at the helm of this responsive ensemble for 34 years. Also featured were saxophonist Susan Fancher and pianist David Cole, CSD accompanist. The chorus was introduced in the virtual style: each singer recorded individually in his or her own frame and joined together or moved about with digital technology.

The concert began with the spritely carol “Ding Dong, Merrily on High” and from there took off in a variety of directions.

The first selection added the jazz stylings of saxophone and piano in a swinging arrangement by Chris Jones. Then Wynkoop appeared, casually attired and sitting in a comfy chair, welcoming us (the audience) to the concert event and wishing us happy holidays. A lilting piano and saxophone duo introduced one of the most exquisite Christmas hymns of all, “In the Bleak Midwinter,” set to the gorgeous tune by Gustav Holst. The accompaniment is set with repeated chords by the piano and the wistful melody in the saxophone. The first two verses were smooth and shimmering as sung by the women of the choir; in contrast, the third verse was sung by the tenor voices, vibrant and warm. The final verse drew on the rich blend of the full choir.

“A Boy was Born” is a 16th century Latin hymn, translated by Elizabeth Poston and set to flowing music with dancing piano accompaniment by English composer Will Todd. Of note is the composer’s interesting use of counterpoint.

“Silent Night” was sung a cappella in a harmonically enriched arrangement by Darmon Meader. This is the kind of music that takes your breath away when sung by such an outstanding choir as Choral Society of Durham. Balance, precision, blend, intonation could hardly be better.

The always bewitching “Lo, how a Rose” was sung in an easygoing, lovely choral arrangement by Shawn Kirchner. featuring piano and saxophone accompaniment. Then “Coventry Carol” in another glorious a cappella arrangement by Meader was sung by the CSD Chamber Choir, illustrating the excellence of this smaller chorus chosen by audition from the large choir.  

“O Little Town of Bethlehem” always seems to have a mystical quality about it, as though one were there in that quiet, peaceful place and peace was more than a fragile hope. Dan Forrest‘s arrangement enhanced the experience with charming piano accompaniment and mellow saxophone riffs.

The next three pieces were reprised from the 2019 BC (before coronavirus) CSD Christmas concert. From the movie Home Alone we heard “Somewhere in My Memory” (John Williams, arr. Mark Hayes). It is about the true meaning of Christmas and the joy of being together with those you love most. The full chorus projected true joy in this warm performance. From White Christmas Irving Berlin’s showpiece, “Snow”(arr. Mark Brymer) was given a very lively and special performance – more about this to follow. And from Broadway’s Mame (Jerry Herman, arr. Martin Albert), the CSD gave about all it had in a rousing performance of “We Need a Little Christmas.” Don’t be surprised if your feet want to move; as we have already seen, the music must dance!

Let me explain. When you watch the recording of this concert, you will notice that in these last three pieces the Choral Society has been singing in full voice, but the video seen was a series of still photos of the choir decked out in Duke Chapel, gloriously highlighted by rich red stoles for the women and tuxedos for the men. But wait! There is a brief clip inserted in the middle of “Snow” with none of the finery; the ambience is different. The choral director is moving around the stage in a dance that would challenge the Rocketts except the high kicks! The inserted video clip is from a rehearsal. You are very unlikely to see Wynkoop engage in this kind of dancing in a formal concert. But it is not at all uncommon in rehearsal. After all, music is informed by dance, and there is no better way of instilling the message of the music in the body, soul, and vocal cords of the choral artists. Thank you, Dr. Wynkoop, thank you!

The full chorus was arranged in coronavirus-style social distancing for the concluding selection: a Will Todd arrangement of “O Come All Ye Faithful,” glorious, and triumphant, ended this creative and rewarding virtual concert. Hang in there. Better days are ahead.

You may watch the DCS 2020 Christmas Concert, “Ding Dong Merrily Online,” by clicking here.

Edited/corrected 12/17/20.