The annual holiday concerts given by the Choral Society of Durham in Duke Chapel are obligatory events for vast throngs of Triangle music lovers. Say what you will about the Chapel’s long reverb time, it’s a stunning place to see – and hear – sacred music, in particular, and during Advent the venue is always beautifully decorated. The venerable choir of 146 voices is one of our region’s largest such ensembles, and it is directed by Rodney Wynkoop, widely recognized as our region’s finest choral conductor. His skill at making programs may not be exceeded hereabouts. The December 13 concert was an all-English affair, consisting of carols accompanied by harp and strings and a rarely-heard early work by Benjamin Britten. The consistency of the program was offset by tremendous variety and contrast among the selections themselves.

The major offering was Britten’s A Boy Was Born, based on 15th- and 16th-century carols, given in its original version for trebles and a mixed adult choir. It was composed in 1932-3 and bears opus number 3, after the Sinfonietta for chamber orchestra and the Phantasy quartet. Hearing this rare and unusual work in a stunning performance underscored many constants in the composer’s better-known pieces – his devotion to treble voices, his compositional skills, his wildly innovative approaches to his art, his ability to make older material and forms his own, and his sheer virtuosity. It’s not for nothing that he is widely viewed as the greatest British composer since Purcell, notwithstanding many other fine creators, some of whom preceded him and others of whom were his contemporaries. As Susan Dakin’s outstanding program notes make clear, A Boy Was Born is a set of six increasingly complex variations on a simple four-note theme, sung to the score’s opening words, which are its title. Dakin writes that the work “is mostly in eight parts, adding children’s voices in Variations I, III, V, and VI.” The “ancient carols” that are the work’s primary texts are presented in ingenious ways as the basic Christmas story unfolds – the six variations are titled, in turn, “Lullay, Jesu,” “Herod,” “Jesu, as thou art our Savior,” “The three kings,” “In the bleak midwinter,” and “Noel!” (the finale).

In the original version, A Boy is Born is sung a cappella. The CSD offered it in partnership with the 34-member Camerata Choir of the Durham School of the Arts, whose director, Scott Hill, is a long-time member of the CSD. The work is a tour de force in compositional terms, and its performance in the Chapel was a tour de force for the performers, too. (Two things may be worth noting: the Camerata Choir’s members are primarily girls, not boys; and Britten’s 1955 revision added organ, ad lib, which may enhance pitch stability on the singers’ parts.)

From close-in seats, the results were stunning. The texts emerged from the sometimes thick and often complex texture with astonishing and amazing clarity – a tribute to the skills of the singers and Wynkoop’s ability to elicit precise attacks and releases and to balance large ensembles. And while the music-making was of virtuoso caliber, it was throughout dedicated to the purpose of revealing the composer’s obvious intentions, so the music was truly served, resulting in a powerfully engaging and moving artistic experience for the large audience. At the end, there was a tremendous and much-deserved ovation. Wynkoop & Co. have long set high standards, and this was one of their best efforts to date.

The concert began with a short offering of English carols and seasonal music by masters of the art, past and present. The present was represented by John Rutter’s “What sweeter music,” John Tavener’s strange “Annunciation” (“How shall this be?”), and Craig Carnahan’s “A cradle song” (“Sweet dreams”). The recent past was represented by Herbert Howells’ “Sing lullaby” and Harold Darke’s “In the bleak midwinter” (which provided striking contrast to the setting of part of the same text in A Boy Was Born). Other pieces were by Richard Runciman Terry (1865-1938) and John Goss (1800-80). Goss’ “See amid the winter’s snow” and the traditional “Sussex Carol” were presented in arrangements by David Willcocks. Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on “Greensleeves,” radiantly played by a small but expert string ensemble headed by Concertmaster Tracy Finkelshteyn, served as a pastoral interlude of sorts. The orchestra included harpist Emily Laurance and many of our region’s best string players. Only two soloists figured in the proceedings – soprano Kimberly Wright and tenor John Adams graced the Goss carol with lovely and restrained vocalism. The CSD sang these opening works in quartet formation – generally an arrangement that guarantees superior blend in superior choirs.

This program was repeated on the afternoon of December 14.

*Edited 12/16/03 .