Coping with crisisThe North Carolina Master Chorale, known for their annual holiday concert, presented a “Joy of the Season” like no other. Filmed in several different locations, the event packed all of the joy in the Master Chorale’s traditional concert into a lovely 60 minutes of carefully crafted – and socially distanced – music. The quintet Carolina Brass, a frequent collaborator with NCMC, joined as well, along with organist Stephen Aber, pianist Susan McClaskey Lohr, vocalist Rozlyn Sorrell, percussionist Victoria Nelson, and bassist Robbie Link.

If you can believe it, the Master Chorale’s two ensembles, the Symphonic and Chamber Choirs, rehearsed exclusively virtually before recording these performances. Thanks to music director Al Sturgis‘s fearless, meticulous leadership and the singers’ preparation, this unconventional rehearsal method yielded great results.

A triumphant, proud “O Come, All Ye Faithful” opened the concert; an excellent sound quality prevailed, despite singers’ masks and the reverberant space. Anderson Videography, along with Aber and Hayes Barton UMC‘s Mike Trexler, created the video to be as seamless as possible, showcasing all the musicians with alternating camera angles, especially in the massive sanctuary of Christ Baptist Church (where the Symphonic Choir selections were filmed). The Symphonic Choir, although featuring fewer singers than typical for the ensemble, maintained a robust sound when spread out in the church’s choir loft AND pews. This was especially true for Dan Forrest’s “Festival First Nowell,” a grand interpretation that adds symphonic fanfare and soaring descants to the usually subdued hymn.

The NCMC’s 16-voice Chamber Choir transported the audience to a slightly more intimate environment. Filmed in Hayes Barton United Methodist Church, the Chamber Choir’s repertoire ranged from the traditional carol “A-Wassailing” to pop offerings like “This Christmas” and Ed Lojeski’s jazzy arrangement of “Glow” (hailing from country singer Brett Eldredge). Regardless of the style, the Chamber Choir’s performances were rhythmically and tonally intricate and a joy to listen to. Technical musical excellence was on display, especially when the small group of singers dug into the lyrical melodies and dissonances of “All Is Quiet” (A. H. Rosewig, arr. Josh Sparkman).

“But wait, there’s myrrh….” As is “Joy of the Season” tradition, Sturgis had to share his collection of terrible Christmas jokes, eliciting audible groans from the handful of people that were present when that part of the concert was filmed. But he’s right, the elves probably DO clean Santa’s sleigh with “santatizer.”

Sorrell, who was last featured on the NCMC stage in Robert Ray’s “Gospel Mass,” shone beautifully with several expressive solos throughout the concert. “O Holy Night,” accompanied by Lohr, was the perfect backdrop for Sorrell’s soaring, operatic diversions from the traditional melody. “The Virgin Mary Had a Baby Boy” was slightly more relaxed, but continued the thread of storytelling that pervaded Sorrell’s performance. Lastly, her rendition of “Jingle Bells” breathed new life into the oft-performed song, on a fresh, forward-moving arrangement with jazz piano and bass.

Several unique pieces closed the concert: individual NCMC singers were spotlighted in a video collage of “The Christmas Song,” Sturgis’ dog Logan had a feature, and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” brought the audience to several outside locations in downtown Raleigh. This last performance was also part of the City of Raleigh’s Christmas Parade! As is customary, the NC Master Chorale closed the program with a high-spirited “Joy to the World,” sung by the full Symphonic Choir and exuberant organ, brass, and timpani.

You can buy your ticket here and view this concert up until December 31.