Throngs of concertgoers of all ages filled Duke Chapel nearly to capacity for the Duke University Chorale‘s annual Christmas concert. Conducted by Dr. Rodney Wynkoop, Duke’s primary vocal ensemble consists of 50 dedicated voices that perform together throughout the year. Although Wynkoop retired from being Director of Chapel Music at Duke in July, he remains a central member of the music department faculty and also conducts several semi-professional ensembles in the community. This particular concert was advertised as “family style” (as the Chorale’s Christmas program usually is) and did not disappoint, containing engaging and varied music, sing-alongs, and interactive stories. Forgoing an admission cost, audience members were asked to bring one non-perishable food item that the Chorale would donate to Urban Ministries of Durham. This collection was very successful, due to a full and generous audience, and also created a very poignant moment in the program as audience members brought up their offerings during a hymn (well, it took two hymns for the long processional).

Duke Chapel’s resonance lends itself well to smooth, legato music, often making more complicated polyphony rather difficult. Thus, the pieces on this concert were thoughtfully chosen to maximize the Chapel’s natural ambience. Diction, which can also be difficult in such a space, was surprisingly good: few words were lost in this concert. Continuing the program’s accessibility for all, Chorale students introduced each set of pieces, varied in language, style, and origin. Although visibility from the Chapel’s nave is pretty abysmal due to its long, rectangular shape, hearing everything was not a problem. Right from the beginning, with Al Strugis‘ punctuated, joyful arrangement of “Sing Noel!,” the Chorale filled the Chapel with their sound. More lyrical songs like “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming,” John Rutter’s “Candlelight Carol,” and Dan Forrest’s “The Work of Christmas” were delightful. The latter piece was especially so, with a text by Howard Thurman illuminating the humanitarian goals that come at the heart of the “Christmas spirit.”

In the middle of the program, the 18-voice select Chamber Choir performed several bright and balanced pieces by themselves. The polyphony of “Psallite unigenito,” a centuries-old Latin hymn with English words by Rutter, was clear and precise, with the smaller group. Toward the end of the program, the subject matter turned towards bells (“Carol of the Bells,” “Jingle Bells,” and “Sleigh Ride”), with Chorale members even passing out tiny bells for the audience to ring, leading up to the arrival of Santa Claus himself. The Chorale bid farewell with “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” which was a fitting end to a concert packed with Christmas cheer.