The estimable Choral Society of Durham, arguably one of the Triangle’s leading choirs, presented its annual holiday concerts in Duke Chapel on the weekend of December 14-15, overlapping in the process the offerings of several other singing groups and competing directly with one of the region’s other large vocal ensembles, the NC Master Chorale. The CSD’s programs were identical, but different soloists appeared in two numbers in the first half. The concert featured seasonal fare, but with a twist: all of the composers or arrangers whose music was featured are (or were, at the time the notes were prepared) still in the land of the living. In some respects, then, these concerts reminded one of the previous Friday’s program by the Chapel Hill Community Chorus, but it would be pure speculation to suggest that there is more than a coincidental link, despite the fact that Rodney Wynkoop, conductor of the Choral Society of Durham, and Sue T. Klausmeyer, who leads the CHCC, happen to work together at Duke Chapel. Still, the CSD’s program was worthy of note for being contemporary – and it’s a safe bet that the audience found little that was far-out or off-putting during the 90 or so minutes invested in the awe-inspiring venue.

After some jazzy pre-concert Christmas fare provided by pianist Glenn Mehrbach – some of the numbers were decidedly secular – the December 15 matinee program began with eight carols with alternating guitar and harp accompaniment, provided by Randy Reed and Emily Laurance, respectively. They were surely amplified, but the electronics were discreetly managed and hardly noticeable except, perhaps, in the instruments’ lowest registers. Music Director Wynkoop knows the choral world as well as anyone and better than most souls, and his selections were consistently impressive. They included Michael Fink’s version of “What Sweeter Music,” Jackson Berkey’s slow, hushed adaptation of “Silent Night” (with soloist Laura Jones), Stephen Paulus’ refreshingly reverential “Bring a torch…,” and Karl Korte’s slow and deliberate “Lullay, litel child.” The CSD’s 30-voice Chamber Choir, which must be among the finest small vocal ensembles in this neck of the woods (including, perhaps, Wynkoop’s other chamber group, the Vocal Arts Ensemble), encored Alf Houkom’s “The rune of hospitality,” and then the large group concluded the opening set with Steve Heitzig’s “little tree,” Jeffrey Van’s setting of “Away in a manger,” and John Rutter’s, of “Tomorrow shall be my dancing day,” in which Petrieka Huffman was the soloist.

The 150-voice chorus was, as is almost invariably the case, immaculately groomed and prepared, and Wynkoop, always faithfully serving the music, elicited some breathtaking sounds, in the loudest passages, in richly colored and shaded mid-ranges, and most particularly in the many serene and sometimes almost inaudible portions. Even in the latter, however, the intensity and passion remained, so (from the front part of the Chapel, at least), every note told. So clean was the diction that one hardly needed the program, with its meticulously documented texts/translations and well-crafted notes by Susan Dakin.

Part two was devoted to a revival of Dave Brubeck’s La fiesta de la posada, last given complete by the then-Durham Civic Choral Society in 1991 but performed more recently by the Capital Area Chorale and, we understand, several churches in the Triangle. Classical music lovers tend not to think of our great American jazz pianist as a classical kinda guy, but he is a deeply spiritual person (as many of his slower tunes reveal), and he has been writing sacred music of the classical ilk for most of his life. (Indeed, his oratorio, Light in the Wilderness , was tried out at UNC in the ’60s, before its official premiere.) The fifteen-part Fiesta score features a band that often sounds Mariachi-like, but the accompaniments, while often festive, rarely border on boisterousness. The players were trumpeters Bobby Hinson and Kevin Crotty (subject of an item in our current news file), the aforementioned pianist Mehrbach, guitarists Reed and Jeff Rossman (a regular CVNC contributor), percussionists David S. Albert (band director of Leesville Road High School) and Todd Proctor, and bassist Robbie Link. Wynkoop and the male members of the CSD shed their coats to reveal red ties, vests, cummerbunds, and suspenders. Still more brightness was brought to the performance by the 37-voice Camerata Choir of the Durham School of the Arts, whose regular director is CSD member Scott Hill. Soprano Patricia Donnelly Phillips portrayed Mary, and the sombrero-topped three Kings, who resembled the Three Amigos until they sang , were tenor John Daniecki, a frequent and always welcome CSD soloist, baritone William Adams (Choir Director of Raleigh’s Unitarian Universalist Fellowship), and bass D. Thomas Jaynes (a longtime Chapel Choir and VAE member). Fiesta begins and ends with instrumental sections; the “overture” leads to a procession, effectively managed in the Chapel by the youngsters and other choristers, who streamed down the aisles. The texts, mostly adapted from traditional sources, relate the Christmas story in a fairly straightforward way, with few digressions. The Kings’ searching is stunningly managed, and the great Gloria, which signals that their quest has been fulfilled, is in many respects the emotional highlight of the 35-minute cantata, although Brubeck is adept at sustaining and indeed managing the prevailing joy, and he does so by breaking up the Kings’ contributions (“We have come to see the Son of God” and “Gold, frankincense and myrrh”) with additional choral passages (“Behold! the holy one” and “Run, run, run”) and a stirring Magnificat for the solo soprano. A lullaby capped Phillips’ exquisite reading of “My soul magnifies…,” and the work concludes with three full choruses, the first reprising an earlier “In the beginning…” section, the second promising that “Neither death not life” will come between believers and “the love of God made visible,” and the last (adapted by Iola Brubeck from various Biblical sources) amplifying and expanding at length upon that promise. Fiesta is truly a soul-stirring work, and the massed performers delivered it in a way that left no doubt of their collective prowess and the skill of their musical leader. The instrumental finale capped the festivities in an appropriately spirited way, and the choir got the last word, shouting “Olè” on the final beat. Only the actual piñata and fireworks were missing.