The Hickory Choral Society formally celebrated its 40th anniversary with a spectacular program on a stunning Sunday afternoon in the sanctuary of First Baptist Church. The concert was the culmination of a weekend-long series of tributes to the ensemble, its long-time director, and the community of which they are such integral artistic components. There was a reunion of alumni singers, many of whom participated in the last two numbers presented at the church. There was the dedication of the Society’s new rehearsal hall, named in (volunteer) director J. Don Coleman’s honor, for the acquisition and outfitting of which nearly half a million dollars was raised – surely making this a unique contribution in the cultural history of the State of the Arts. There were of course rehearsals but also recording sessions and lots of reminiscing. The HCS has long been one of Western NC’s treasures, but it has also sung in Washington, New York, and overseas, and it played important roles in partnerships with other NC organizations, ranging from the NC Symphony to Appalachian Summer Festival and beyond.

The constants through all these years have been the dedication of the singers and their director and the support of the community, wherein this choral ensemble quickly earned its place as a major cultural force. Much hinged on Coleman; trained as a pianist at UNC before working with the late Lara Hoggard to hone his choral music skills; he was engaged to lead a community Messiah sing-in. The statistics, enumerated in the lavish season program book, encompass numerous distinguished guest artists, four important commissions, and a total of nine world premieres. This is a considerable legacy, but it is clear that with its new rehearsal facility, the Society is also positioned to continue to enrich music in Catawba County and beyond for years to come.

Among those premieres was Requiem for the Living, composed by Dan Forrest (b.1978) for the Society’s 35th anniversary, a score that is enjoying a remarkable life as one of the most notable new choral works of our time. It is fitting, therefore, that Coleman & Co. turned their attention to another new Forrest piece, the seven-section, seven-language Jubilate Deo, premiered in 2016.

Like the earlier Requiem, this score is completely tonal and immediately accessible. The text is from Ps.100, presented by mixed chorus in various configurations, alto and soprano soloists, and – on this occasion – chamber orchestra with organ and extensive percussion. The 90 choristers were arrayed across the back of the chancel with the orchestra in front of them and the organ console off to the side. Alto Erin Hooks, currently pursuing a non-profit management degree at Lenoir Rhyne, and soprano Emily Buckland, a teacher at Hudson Elementary School, and both members of the HCS, sang their solo parts from the lip of the stage.

The opening section set the tone for the joyous, celebratory work. This is vibrant, upbeat, engaging music, enthusiastically and energetically offered here, conveying its positive and hopeful message in Latin familiar to people of faith everywhere. Eastern strains marked the second section, delivered in Arabic and Hebrew and featuring both solo artists. A section in Mandarin Chinese was the most unusual and unexpected component, radiantly sung by Buckland. The central part and in retrospect the artistic core of the work is in Zulu, accompanied by a hard-working percussion crew, with driving rhythms and non-stop motion: even the customarily restrained Coleman got into the spirit with whole-body conducting that made some long-time observers wonder if he were going to catapult himself into some sort of earth orbit. A Spanish blessing restored calm to the proceedings along with time for blissful reflection. The finale, consisting of an extended Alleluia joined without pause with a reprise of the Jubilate Deo themes of the opening movement, brought the afternoon’s major celebratory work to a powerful close. The audience erupted with applause.

Following a short pause to allow alumni singers to join current members, the remarkable reworking of “I vow to you my country,” Princess Diana’s favorite hymn (also used by Holst in The Planets), by Z. Randall Stroope (b.1953), was heard. This powerful piece merges great English hymnody with a strong national thrust that can easily apply to America today and to other lands across the globe. The massed choir was remarkable to hear, its diction and precision impressive throughout the afternoon.

The grand finale was a stunning reworking of the famous Widor Toccata as “Sing!” by David Willcocks (1919-2105). He didn’t alter the organ part one tiny bit, so listeners get all that glowing splendor, building from start to finish. The added choral parts amplify, serving as a glorious cap for an important afternoon and concluding with the words, “Sing we praise to God…, Sing we with joy!”

The HCS continues its season in April with the choral finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the complete performance of which will mark Western Piedmont Symphony Music Director John Gordon Ross’ farewell to the podium. For details, click here. See, there are lots of wonderful things going on in Hickory!

For more information on the Hickory Choral Society’s 40th anniversary, see their preview published on CVNC.