The Asheville Symphony Orchestra and Asheville Symphony Chorus teamed up with vocalists Mary Mackenzie and Timothy Jones for a wonderful holiday concert at the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium. On the program were selections from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio as well as several much beloved Christmas songs like “O Holy Night” and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”

This concert marks the first time I have seen and heard the ASO and ASC collaborate; under the direction of Daniel Meyer and Michael Lancaster respectively, it was a welcome spectacle to behold. Supplemented by the presence of wonderful soprano Mary Mackenzie and bass-baritone Timothy Jones, the afternoon was a smashing success.

The Asheville Symphony Orchestra’s leadership has (in my experience) an ear for programming, and this program was no exception. The entire first half of the concert was devoted to selections from the Christmas Oratorio, S.248, by none other than the father of “classical” music himself, Johann Sebastian Bach. Before the downbeat, maestro Meyer gave the audience a welcome history lesson about the Christmas Oratorio, letting us know that it is actually a composite of multiple cantatas penned by Bach, intended for various days of the celebratory holiday. The selections included a variety of different flavors of Bach, including full chorus and orchestra, instrumental, aria, and chorales, which served well to keep the audience engaged and interested. Overall, the selections were great choices with which to open the concert; while still technically Christmas music, the Bach not often exposed to the same extent as a piece such as “The First Noël” or “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” My only criticism was a question of balance. The orchestra and chorus as a whole came together very well, even with the addition of soloists Mackenzie and Jones, with the exception of a trumpet section that proved to be just a bit too loud for what was going on around them. To be fair, the trumpet section in the Oratorio is very important, but I felt it was slightly exaggerated beyond what I felt was appropriate in the context of the rest of the ensemble.

The second half of the concert featured a mélange of popular and traditional Christmas works, opening with a cheerful rendition of “Ding Dong (Merrily on High),” showing just what the Asheville Symphony Chorus was capable of, with Lancaster then taking up the baton later for John Rutter‘s arrangement of “What Sweeter Music.” Following “Ding Dong,” Jones was featured as a soloist performing “What Child is This?” His presence and imposing voice gave a welcome, rich flavor to the piece, which grew and grew up to the very end. This version was arranged by Steven L. Rosenhaus; this is now my favorite arrangement! Later in the program, Mackenzie was featured as a soloist in the traditional “O Holy Night,” the shining moment of the concert. Her operatic background was plainly apparent as she filled the entire concert hall with her stunning voice. Even with the full orchestra and chorus behind her, her presence was constant.

Following Mackenzie’s performance, in a welcome gesture of audience participation, maestro Meyer invited the attendees to join with the ensembles in a Christmas sing-along including “O Come All Ye Faithful” and the aforementioned “The First Noël,” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” To conclude the afternoon, the ensembles, joined by Mackenzie and Jones, performed a bombastic rendition of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”

This classical Christmas celebration with the Asheville Symphony Orchestra and Asheville Symphony Chorus was a joyous and lively experience, future versions of which I would highly recommend to anyone who has not witnessed a world-class Christmas performance.

The Asheville Symphony Orchestra will perform Beethoven’s 5th Symphony on January 17, on a program also featuring guest violinist Kyung Ah Oh at the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium. The Asheville Symphony Chorus will perform Handel’s Alexander’s Feast on Saturday, April 18, with the Asheville Symphony Orchestra. For information on these and other pending concerts, see our calendar.