The East Carolina University Chamber Singers‘ latest concert in New Bern was offered for free, through the generosity of First Baptist Church organist Bette Jo Oglesby, in memory of her mother Georgie Lillian Gaskins née Taylor, a proud ECU grad.

The ECU Chamber Singers are a stellar group of musicians, under the careful direction of Dr. James Franklin. His work, even with a constantly changing personnel, is always stellar. The audience at First Baptist Church was a little unusual, giving a long, rousing standing ovation when the singers first entered.

A few of the pieces on this program were previously heard in October in Greenville, but most of it was completely fresh. The opening number was “The First Noel,” featuring an enthusiastic audience sing-along.

“Gloria” from Mozart’s Missa Brevis in F, K. 192, featured a quartet consisting of Sarah Sommers, Erica Timmerman, Ruben Ortega, and Evan Martschenko, along with the chorus. The quartet was well matched and the chorus was smooth and strong. The church’s space turned out to be acoustically excellent for singers. There was a surprising amount of swaying and bobbing among the performers. Franklin mentioned that the Gloria could be considered the “first Christmas song,” the song the angels sang in Bethlehem. “Pulchra es” by Jakko Mäntyjärvi, which brings life to text from the Song of Solomon, was remarkable for the smooth and rich basses.

Franklin pointed out that the next two numbers were Marian hymns, tying them to the seasonal theme. First was Herbert Howells‘ “Magnificat” from the service music known as Collegium Regale, because it was composed for Eric Milne-White at King’s College, Cambridge. Other than the soprano section’s overwhelming power at times, the togetherness of Franklin’s singers was always impressive. Their attacks and cut offs were very precise, suggesting how closely they watch and follow their director. Meanwhile, Eric Stellrecht‘s grand piano accompaniment was very effective in suggesting an English cathedral-style organ.

“Coventry Carol” was presented in an arrangement by Ralph Vaughan Williams for tenors and basses only. These low voices were really fine, with crisp, clear diction. Herod’s verse could have been sung with a more dramatic expression of his ire, but the transitional subito piano into the last verse was excellent.

“Days of Beauty” by Ola Gjeilo is composed to a poem by Emily Brontë. The Chamber Singers featured soloist Erica Timmerman with the sopranos and altos only, in contrast to the previous tenor/bass piece. The singers were in their lowest range at first, which was very effective. The pieces “Deck The Halls,” “Lo, How A Rose,” and “Ding Dong, Merrily On High” were a fine seasonal medley. “Lo, How A Rose” was absolutely beautiful as well as technically perfect (the two things are not always mutually compatible). Franklin manages to inspire his singers with his sense of drive; the music was always “going somewhere.” “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” felt a little forced but nicely inflected. Matt Weeks’ solo in “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” was very professional, yet also sincere. He has a nice baritone, and thus offered a good contemporary rendition. “Ding Dong” had, like the whole performance, perfect diction (and perfect intonation, too). What marvelous sound!

Everyone needs to know about Caroline Shaw, a Greenville native and the composer of the Chamber Singers’ next piece, “and the swallow.” This setting of Psalm 84 was the most technically difficult piece of the evening, complex and wonderful with Franklin’s intelligent direction and the brilliantly fresh young voices.

This was followed with Brahms’ “Geistliches Lied,” Op. 30, which was very different from “and the swallow,” but equally complex and beautiful in its performance. The German diction was very good, and this piece by Brahms soared just as it should. Brahms’ choral music is often more organ-like than his organ music; this piece is a good example. Franklin and the singers made it seem effortless, carefully concealing what must have been a lot of hard work. The performance was smooth and easy sounding, with seamless crescendos and decrescendos.

Next were two Russian settings of “Otche Nash” (Our Father), one by Alfred Schnittke (from his Drei geistliche Gesänge) and one by Nikolai Golovanov. Each was different, excellent, and moved to a white hot climax while remaining smooth. The room, so unkind to Franklin’s spoken word, was excellent for Timmerman’s solo in “The star” by Harald Sventelius, arr. Hans-Ola Ericsson. She has a powerful but pleasant voice. The concert’s end was another crowd-pleaser, a singalong on “Silent Night.” To the ECU Chamber Singers: Bravi! Bravi! To maestro James Franklin: Bravo!