Italian Christmas by Chapel Hill Community Chorus
by Ken Hoover
December 19, 2008, Chapel Hill, NC: This is the first time I have heard a concert in the renovated Hill Hall Auditorium on the campus of UNC. The seating is relatively more comfortable, though the faux-leather seat and arm coverings tend to squeak a bit under certain situations. The last several performances of the Chapel Hill Community Chorus have been in Memorial Hall, which proved to be quite spacious for the audience they draw. However, Hill Hall was packed to capacity for this first of their two performances of "An Italian Christmas." About 140 choristers plus a baroque orchestra fit snugly on the stage. The overall acoustics seem to be unaffected by the seating and flooring improvements.
In keeping with the program title, all the music performed was from the generations of Italy's best composers, from the early eighteenth century to last year. The program began with Vivaldi's well-known and beloved Gloria, RV 589. The joy of this piece is the mood of the Italian Baroque: airy, light and bouncy. It was originally composed for the Ospedale della Pietà, a convent, orphanage, and music school in Venice. The opening "Gloria in excelsis Deo" and the "Domine Fili Unigenite" will get your foot tapping for sure if not leaping in the air like a high school cheer leader. The "Laudamus te" duet (sung on this occasion by Elizabeth Williams-Grayson and Terry Rhodes) is a landmark of luminescent beauty. Peggy Stevermer, an alto from the chorus, did a beautiful job on the two sections she sang. The closing fugal "Cum Sanctu Spiritu" is a thrilling tour de force to leave the audience cheering. Over-all, the performance sagged a bit under the heaviness of the large choir and the lack of crisp lightness in articulation, but many community choruses do it in this romanticized style and it still provides joy and pleasure.
The second selection, from a generation or two after Gloria, was Giovanni Battista Pergolesi's Magnificat, featuring soloists from the choir: Pamela Stewert, soprano, Whitney Kahn, alto, Bill Kodros, tenor, and John Stevermer, bass. (Coincidently, the publishing of a picture of the choir's soloists in the program was a very nice and much appreciated touch.) The soloists did an outstanding job, and the choir seemed lighter and more precise in the Pergolesi. The Baroque orchestra performing with both of these first two pieces was very good.
The Women of the Chorus, with soprano Amanda Haas, sang the popular "Gesu Bambino" in a sweet lullaby arrangement by Linda Spevacek, and the first half of the concert concluded with "Dormi, Dormi, O Bel Bambin" as arranged by the master of choral arrangers, Robert DeCormier. Alice Carlton was the soprano soloist in this traditional Italian lullaby and, again, the talents of individual members of the CHCC were displayed effectively and impressively.
The second half of the concert was the knock-out punch — not a very good metaphor for a choral concert, perhaps, but it is descriptive. We heard three selections by Giuseppe Di Bianco, who was sitting in the audience as a guest of the Carolina International Chorale (comprised largely of members of the CHCC) and the Triangle Sons of Italy. First was the "Salmo 148" for chorus with piano accompaniment, a contemporary tour de force with a magical treatment of the "alleluias" at the end. This motet won the Franco Caracciolo prize for choral composition for sacred text setting at a competition in Naples in 2008. The second selection was an arrangement of a lovely Italian lullaby/carol from the pen of Saint Alfonso Maria de' Liguori (1696-1787), a Neapolitan bishop and composer. "Tu Scendi Dalle Stelle" ("You come down from the stars") featured the accompaniment of a chamber orchestra, adding new harmonies to the charming carol. The third work, "Venite, exultemus," was composed as the final scene of Rabbuni, a 13-scene sacred drama of the life of Christ. It portrays the resurrection as the event that "rejoins the earth to the sky and the man to his creator." It begins with an ominous and dirge-like theme in the strings, woodwinds, and tympani but very gradually changes as the soprano (Rhodes) appeals, "O come, let us rejoice!" With each repetition of the words, the harmonies become brighter and the chorus joins in becoming more hopeful, all building to a climax of blinding light and assurance. This was a rich and treasured musical experience.
I first met Giuseppe Di Bianco in Maori on the trip to Italy last June with the aforementioned Carolina International Chorale. In a beautiful church overlooking the Mediterranean Sea on the Amalfi coast, I sat behind him during one of the concerts in which the CIC sang his "Salmo 148." After the concert, many of the locals and singers came up to shake his hand and pat him on the back. At a proper moment I asked if he might be the composer of the piece we heard and he said he was. We chatted for a moment or two and I gave him my WCPE card with a request that if he had recordings of any of his music I would happily play them on my Great Sacred Music program. He sent me an MP3 of his piece "In laude," which I played in September. It was an honor and a joy to know that he had his family and friends listening in on the internet that Sunday.
The concert closed with a stunning performance of Ottorino Respighi's Lauda per la Natività del Signore (Laud to the Nativity). Composed in 1930, it displays his fascination with music of earlier periods, going back to the middle ages, formed into new shapes. The cantata is scored for three soloists, chorus, and a chamber ensemble of woodwinds and piano. There are substantial sections for 8-part mixed chorus and 4-part male chorus. The soloists were Williams-Grayson, Rhodes, and tenor Timothy W. Sparks. The ensemble was excellent, and the timbre of the bassoons lent a rich and warm sound to the piece. The choir was at its best in this selection, and it provided a very satisfying seasonal delight for the audience to savor.
Conductor Sue Klausmeyer has done a remarkable job with this group of enthusiastic singers. We would be amiss not to mention also the accomplished work of accompanist Alicia Levin. To all the singers, soloists, instrumentalists, composers, ticket handlers, and program editors, thanks for giving us a bright light in the Christmas sky!