For nearly sixty years, the Choral Society of Durham has been providing pleasure and cultural gratification to neighbors and choral singing aficionados from across the Triangle and beyond. Having engaged only four conductors over that period of time is remarkable, even given that Alan Bone, the original leader, served two interim terms of service after laying the foundation, in 1949. It seems that a mutual bond never failed to develop between the dedicated and gifted volunteer singers and the leader who picks up the challenge of fulfilling the soul’s need for music. This is the 23rd Christmas that Rodney Wynkoop has brought his energy, his enthusiasm, his knowledge, and his insistence on excellence to the Choral Society’s annual Christmas concert in Duke Chapel. We have come to expect choral performances and stirring programs that rival the best professional choirs in the world; every Christmas, they sound better and better.

The concert opened with a unique and challenging selection: Karolju by contemporary American composer Christopher Rouse. I have heard other works by Rouse and know his penchant to “take off” from a familiar or established work and move it in his own direction. In this case, he takes off from two points; on the one hand is the rich tradition of Christmas carols from all over the world, and the other is Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. The composer uses words from each of eight languages, not so much in a meaningful literary manner but rather as a structure on which to hang his music, through which he seeks to express the spirit and meaning of Christmas in the various cultures. The Latin, Swedish, and French segments that opened the piece convinced me that Rouse certainly knew Carmina Burana well. The same boisterous, driving rhythms and use of percussion were on point. With the fourth section (Spanish), he moved into a more transparent and lilting style; a hint of “Greensleves” seemed to influence this carol, and the unique Spanish embellishments were sung angelically by the women of the chorus.

After an instrumental reprise of the opening theme, the men sang a Russian carol, and all Russian it was, with the flavor of basso profundo underlying it and chants sung in the rapid Russian style. This was my favorite part. The Czech section was of bells chiming gaily, with the violins chirping a bell-like onomatopoeia. In the German section, one could distinguish a stately and melodic Bach bass line. The penultimate section was an Italian cradle lullaby with wonderfully sweet interludes for oboe and strings and flute and strings. The closing was a reprise of the opening theme, this time played on the chimes. It was a moving piece, very well done, and a nice reminder of a world in which joy, longing, and hope are the same everywhere. 

The second part of the concert began with “Awake, Arise, and Hail the Morn,” an early American hymn from The Sacred Harp, arranged by Mack Wilberg with a warm and vigorous brass accompaniment. Also the CSD’s consistently fine accompanist Jane Lynch was at the organ for this selection.* Dan Locklair’s “Hodie Christus natus est” was sung a cappella with such effectiveness as to drive away any other thought or noise. Robert Young’s setting of “There is No Rose of Such Virtue” provided an opportunity for each section of the choir to display its special timbre and expertise in both sections and blended together. John Jacob Niles’ gorgeous and haunting ballad “I Wonder as I Wander” featured soprano Kristen Blackman and was absolutely mesmerizing, a tribute to this choir’s balance and controlled ensemble. “Judah’s Land,” arranged by David R. Johnson, was an example of how this chorus can take something simple and straightforward – four couplet verses with refrain – and make it elegant and exquisite.

Stephen Paulus’ setting of a 13th century French carol, “The Neighbors of Bethlehem,” raised a cacophony of sound on the words “Good neighbor, tell me why that sound, that noisy tumult rising round…. ” before the soloist announced, “God hath appeared on earth below….” “The Shepherd’s Star,” from The Southern Harmony, featured the harp and a solo, providing more ethereal variety to the concert experience. James Ramsey Murray’s familiar “Away in a Manger,” arranged by Robert Shaw and Alice Parker, was another demonstration of the beautiful eloquence of simplicity. The solos in this group were by Elizabeth Terry and Nicholas Mason.

“A Cradle Song,” with words by William Blake and music by Craig Carnahan, was sung by the CSD Chamber Choir with only harp accompaniment added lovingly by Laura Byrne.* It was awesomely beautiful, and the diminuendo on the last line, so perfectly done in balance that it was hard to tell where the singing stopped and the silence began. Laura Jones’ solo in the Spiritual “Mary Had a Baby” brought tears to my eyes and made me think of the young Jessye Norman, with a voice softer than velvet, yet powerful and full of implied meaning. Another Spiritual, “Glory Hallelujah to the New Born King,” was rousing and joyful, with another of the fine voices from the choir, tenor Bradley Yoder, singing majestically. The program closed with “Sunny Bank,” an English carol, arranged by Mack Wilberg. With the brass back on board and the choir singing in full voice it was a thrilling and fitting conclusion to a marvelous concert.

Oh yes. I forgot to mention that on the walk from the parking deck to the Chapel, I heard the mystical and magical sound of “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” on the carillon. My spirit now rejoices – for I have had music and my soul is warmed. I have no need for any other gifts during this season.

*Updated 12/17 & 12/20/08, based on reader input.