The setting was Highland United Methodist Church, but on May 1, Westminster was responsible once more for the grandeur of a concert of cathedral music. Double entendre intended: both Lawrence Speakman, director of the Concert Singers of Cary Symphonic Choir, and guest artist Kevin Kerstetter, who conducted the Concert Singers of Cary Chamber Choir and accompanied the Symphonic Choir at the organ, are products of Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey. Speakman built his program, “Music of the Great English Cathedrals,” to culminate in three consecutive outstanding works, following each of which it was nearly impossible to restrain applause. This had been requested at the beginning of the concert, which was being taped. Those three final works were G. Hubert H. Parry’s “I Was Glad When They Said Unto Me” (1910), William Mathias’ “Let the people praise thee, O God” (1981), and Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “O Clap Your Hands” (1920). Had this impeccably performed program bounced off the walls of Westminster Cathedral or even Duke Chapel, the sound would have been heavenly beyond its summary perfection. Speakman explained that since Duke Chapel had not been available, they had selected Highland as the venue. It is a contemporary work of architecture with an impressively high ceiling, the simplicity of the décor of which is highlighted by a virtual decorative screen of stained glass windows of random jewel-colored design, appropriate to a contemporary sanctuary. The other impressive large focal point is a mass of organ pipes at the upper left of the front wall. The marvelous organ, by Casavant Frères of Canada, was another consideration for the use of this space for the cathedral music concert.

The brass and percussion ensemble that complemented the voices and organ with commensurate strength was placed on a platform, to the right, balancing the organ, on the left. Antiphonal organ pipes in the rear of the sanctuary were used by Kerstetter with spectacular effect toward the end of the program. The organ was placed in its pit position for this occasion, but at a recent weekend event of the Central North Carolina Chapter of the American Guild of Organists, audiences learned that its console may be raised for workshops or moved for recitals. Indeed it is a very special instrument in a fine concert space, its primary function being to support weekly worship in the sanctuary.

Opening with William Byrd’s “Ave Verum Corpus” (1605), the Chamber Choir presented a clarity of blend and perfection of balance that was evident throughout the evening. Both the small and large choral units excelled in cohesiveness of tone quality and diction. The Chamber Choir’s other two offerings were John Tavener’s “The Lamb” (1982) and Charles Villiers Stanford’s “Beati Quorum via” (1892). CSC Executive Director David R. Lindquist’s delightful program notes* describe the latter: “Beati, one of three Romantic-style motets published by Stanford in 1905, ably echoes the contemplative nature of its Psalm 119 text.” There was a thoughtful segue to the first work performed by the Symphonic Choir: “When in Our Music God is Glorified” (1904), sung to the familiar hymn tune Engelberg, was also written by Stanford. Appropriate organ accompaniment and the great brass, timpani and percussion that supported the performance of this work hid the tentative first word of the chorus, soon forgotten, and probably inspired the singers never to show uncertainty again. Indeed the instruments enhanced the voices throughout the evening with excellent balance creating – or perhaps I should say simulating – the ambiance of a cathedral performance. The instrumentalists were by no means background accompaniment.

Exceptional program building was realized when, after the first three assertively-sung selections by the Symphonic Choir – Handel’s “Coronation Anthem No. 1” (“Zadok the Priest”) (1727) and Edgar L. Bainton’s “And I Saw a New Heaven” (1928) followed the Stanford hymn – the brasses burst forth to introduce and then to play interludes during John Rutter’s glorious “Te Deum” (1988). Notable was the alternate use of men’s and women’s voices toward the end, punctuated with brass fanfares. Next, lovely quiet contemporary organ harmonies introduced Herbert Howells’ “Like As a Hart Desireth the Waterbrooks” (1941), featuring soprano soloist Nancy MacDonald. Here, choral contrasts were notably well executed, the Casavant organ tones registered for the interludes were extremely effective, and diction was exceptional, as it was throughout the evening. Soprano Amy Athavale rose to the occasion to make proper emphasis in a section of Benjamin Britten’s “Festival Te Deum” (1945). The choral statements were appropriately assertive from the beginning, and there was great urgency in the passage “…When He had overcome the sharpness of death,” where the voices rushed on with tremendous organ support. There followed an organ introduction like a great modulation into Henry Balfour Gardiner’s “Evening Hymn” (1926). The Symphonic Choir began this with a notable grand attack. The program notes* can’t be topped in commentary: “…a jewel of an anthem features a lush harmony, a sweeping twenty-one measure ‘Amen,’ and fine organ accompaniment.”

On to the three aforementioned show stoppers, resulting in one heartfelt finale. After each, it took great effort to restrain applause. Parry’s “I Was Glad When They Said Unto Me” was sung at the coronations of Edward VII in 1910 and of Elizabeth II in 1953. Mathias’ “Let the People Praise Thee, O God” uses the text of Psalm 67 and was composed especially for the wedding of Charles and Diana in 1981. An antiphonal organ trumpet introduction distinguished this work, and the interplay of the trumpeting pipes in the rear of the venue with the huge choir at the front was magnificent. The brass section filled the sanctuary with glorious sound in support of the chorus in the grand finale, Vaughan Williams’ “O Clap Your Hands” (1920). The performance excelled and the audience responded to the suggestion of the last work’s title with long-delayed applause.

*Corrected 5/11/04