The two top choral music ensembles at East Carolina University didn’t take the safe or easy way out in their annual holiday music programs before a large audience at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. The all-female St. Cecilia Singers and the mixed Chamber Singers delivered gorgeous sounds on a wide variety of compositions that showed not only their own skills but also the creativity of their respective conductors, Dr. Jeffrey Ward and Dr. Andrew Crane.

The 30-voice St. Cecilia Singers presented works ranging from Claudio Monteverdi and Carl Czerny to Zoltán Kodály and Maurice Duruflé. The blend of voices, sometimes in two parts, sometimes in at least four parts, was seamless throughout, with clear diction, clean entrances and crisp cutoffs.

Two brief works, Kodály’s “Ave Maria,” and “Monteverdi’s “Angelus ad pastore ait,” opened the program, both sung a cappella; the latter was directed by guest Martha Chapman. Both were beautifully performed. Ward chose Malcolm Archer’s setting of “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree,” accompanied by St. Paul’s organist Andrew Scanlon, which starts in unison and then uses a descending melody line in ascending intervals to build toward verses in canon. Another well known text with less well known music was Katherine K. Davis’ setting for “In the Bleak Midwinter,” which is much more minor-key in nature than the familiar Gustav Holst version.

A highlight of the set was “Exite Sion Filiae” by Czerny, which has a medieval feel and displays wonderful moving lines. This piece showed as much as any the strength and maturity of the young women’s voices, especially in the higher reaches of the soprano section. Likewise “Tota pulchra es,” Op. 10/2, by Duruflé demonstrated how well the singers mastered the interweaving of melody lines, with some beautiful suspensions at the intersections of those lines.

The Chamber Singers, nearly 40 voices, presented a program that ranged from Gregorian chant to contemporary composers, and Andrew Crane also included some contrasting settings of similar texts and modern versions of familiar carols, as well as the American premier of a work by Italian composer Ivo Antognini (born 1963).

Two examples of contrasts: A Gregorian chant of “O radix Jesse” followed by the same text set to music by a contemporary Lithuanian composer, Vytautas Miškinis (born 1954). The former opens with the soprano section and bells; the latter features tight harmonies by the entire chorale and includes a lovely flowing melody. The other example was pairing Richard Rodney Bennett’s setting for the “Gloria” from his Missa Brevis with that of Sergei Rachmaninoff, taken from his All Night Vigil. Bennett’s is in three sections, with a sharp switch in mood from the first to the second, and here the singing was good, although the fast tempo at the beginning of the first section caused the lyrics to get lost in the acoustics of the space. The Rachmaninoff, sung in Russian, has a chant-like sound, and closes with a lovely diminuendo.

Antognini’s setting for “O Magnum Mysterium” is a wonderful piece, an instantly accessible composition that seems more reminiscent of Anglican chant than, say, the famous Victoria setting.  It was paired with a Spanish piece by Geronimo Gonzales, “Serenissima una noche,” which has fine harmonies and a delightful dance rhythm.

Crane chose contemporary settings for “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” (Steven Landau), “Joy to the World” (Jackson Berkey), and “The First Nowell.” (Mack Wilberg). All three are interesting takes on well known carols, although they are not likely to replace their corresponding standard versions. Bass Scott Willis sang the opening verse to Kurt Knecht’s arrangement of “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” and the choral singing that followed, accompanied by percussion, was lively and well done.   

In his first semester as director of choral music activities, Crane gives evidence that he is a worthy successor to Dr. Daniel Bara as head of one of the musical jewels of the university. The Chamber Singers were fortunate to have had Dr. Alfred Sturgis of the North Carolina Master Chorale for a year last year (he programmed Bach’s “Magnificat” along with works by Healey Willan and Conrad Susa, among others, for last year’s holiday program), and now Crane gets to build on that foundation. He and Ward are guiding their young singers well, and the singers are displaying their considerable talent.