The Carolina Concert Choir, under the skilled direction of Bradford Gee, proved yet again why it is one of the major auditioned choral ensembles of our region. Their program, entitled “Ye Shall Have a Song: Thirty Years of Singing” to mark their 30th anniversary, was a stunning array of major choral works, including two pieces by Kenton Coe written just for the choir. The performance was notable for its energy and focus and a consummate attention to detail rarely heard in community choirs. Two extremely talented musicians, Katherine Price and Karen Areheart, executed the difficult piano accompaniments with ease and exceptional musicality. The choir will perform again at St. Philips Episcopal Church, Charleston, SC on May 25, 2009, as part of the Piccolo Spoleto Festival. For details, please visit here.

The program opened with Mozart’s “Regina Coeli,” K.276, its text a votive antiphon to the Blessed Virgin Mary used in the ancient service of Compline during the Easter season. The text’s exuberant message of joy echoed in the performance, despite the technical demands made on the singers, especially soloists Caroline Rollins, Erica Zoller, Phillip Haynie, and Brian Tribby. Some problems with blending in the soprano section were evident, especially as the work climbed above the staff and a dynamic of forte; however, they seemed to resolve themselves in later pieces.

From Poulenc’s Chansons françaises, we heard three delightful songs voicing the complaints of women, executed with glee and impeccable French diction. “Margoton va t’a l’iau,” is a narrative about a woman’s misfortune for having fallen into a well and her dependence on the mercy of three male passersby. “Pilons l’orge,” also a sort of French “patter song,” is about a woman married to a “vilain,” a churl who will regret his abusive treatment of her. Changing gears is the softer and sweeter lament, sung in perfect choral harmony, “La belle se sied au pied da la tour,” about a woman’s longing for a man who, alas, is to be hanged.

Ending the first half of the program was Stravinsky’s iconic Symphony of Psalms (1930). Commissioned by the Boston Symphony, the work was originally scored for SATB chorus and an orchestra with no violins, violas, or clarinets and beefed up by expanded woodwinds-to wit: four flutes plus piccolo, four oboes, English horn, three bassoons, and contrabassoon, four horns, five trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, harp, two pianos, cellos and basses. These are the orchestral colors one must imagine in a performance reduction to two pianos and choir.

The three movements, sung without pause, begin with a march-like setting of Psalm 38:13-14, its plodding eighth notes and dry, percussive chords an intriguing setting of the prayers of supplication. The text of the second movement, from Psalm 39:2-4, a prayer of remembered promises and fulfillment, takes the form of an intricate bitonal double fugue (C minor for orchestra, E flat for chorus), executed with remarkable precision and a breath-taking range of dynamics. The final movement, a complete setting of Psalm 150, begins slowly with intonations on “Laudate.” These give way to an Allegro with driving rhythms, hammered chords, and sharply dissonant music that finds peaceful resolution in the ostinati of the coda, a vision of heaven itself. The choir seemed right at home with Stravinsky’s dissonant vocabulary, dramatically showcasing the remarkable emotional scope of this great work. Kudos to both pianists for their exceptional ability in negotiating this difficult score!

The treats after intermission included five songs (Nos. 5-9) from Brahms’ Zigeunerlieder, Op. 103. Numbers 6 (“Röslein dreie in der Reihe blühn so rot”) and 7 (“Kommt dir manchmal in den Sinn”) were standouts for their beautifully soft dynamics with crisp diction. Vaughan Williams’ beloved “Serenade to Music” featured a standout array of soloists — soprano Lynn Moore, alto Judy Meinzer, tenor Wayne Arrowood, bass Rich Smith, and violinist Kristine McCreery— in one of the loveliest live performances I’ve heard of this work.

The final set was comprised solely of American composers. The serene anthem “Sing, My Soul, His Wondrous Love” by Ned Rorem, and “Have Ye Not Known” and “Ye Shall Have a Song” from Randall Thompson’s The Peaceable Kingdom, were all sung a cappella with an astonishing range of emotional expressiveness. As wonderful as these were, the two works by Kenton Coe (b.1930), commissioned by the choir, stole the show. The “Architects of Heaven,” its idealistic text drawn from As A Man Thinketh by James Allen, was proudly performed for the first time. This absorbing and sophisticated piece with its panoply of intriguing musical devices invites closer inspection. Coe’s “A Quiet Alleluia,” sung at the December concert, was repeated here as an encore.

Congratulations to the choir, the accompanists, and Director Bradford Gee for an incomparable evening of choral music!