Coping with crisisTwo Winston-Salem institutions, Piedmont Opera and Calvary Moravian Church, joined forces to offer the community Songs of the Season. At least that is what it would have been in any other year: the community would have come to the church to enjoy the event. This year there was no audience in the pews. Anyone from the community could have seen the performance in streaming format, and also anyone elsewhere in the state and beyond, free of charge to all. While there is inevitable compromise in not being present where the music is happening, there is huge gain in events being accessible to everyone, no matter where those listeners might be.

The first half of the program was offered by Piedmont Opera. Piedmont Opera has now passed its fortieth year of operations. The organization provides opera education programs to students, adults, and educators and mounts two productions a year with national and international-level singers. James Allbritten led the performance as conductor, and as the engaging provider of informative commentary on the music. Allbritten is the general and artistic director of Piedmont Opera and formerly was the artistic director of the A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute at the North Carolina School of the Arts.

The program began with Cantata Pastorale per la Nativita Di Nostro Signore Gesu Cristo by Alessandro Scarlatti. A. Scarlatti may be less familiar to music lovers today than his son Domenico, whose nearly 600 keyboard sonatas are staples of concerts and recordings. However, the senior Scarlatti was a prolific and gifted composer of operas who achieved high status in the Italian opera world of the late 17th and early 18th centuries. He also wrote chamber cantatas such as the one heard on this concert.

This cantata consists of three alternating recitatives and arias; as the name suggests, it is of a gentle and lyrical character. The work featured the soprano soloist Jodi Burns, accompanied by socially-distanced string quartet and organ. The piece was finely lyrical, with a touch of pathos in the second aria, where the minor mode made its presence felt. Burns projected the full lines with an equally full voice, and was especially rich in the third recitative and aria. Allbritten conducted with attentive shaping of phrases. One might have wished the third aria to be somewhat quicker, or at least more distinct in tempo from the preceding one. The quartet accompanied well, but perhaps due to the size of the space one would have liked a stronger sound. The organ could have filled out the sound more than it did, especially with a fuller bass.

Two Brahms pieces followed. The first brought organist Mary Louise Kapp Peeples to the fore as soloist. She played the chorale prelude “Es ist ein’ Ros’ entsprungen” (A Rose has sprung forth). This lovely, meditative piece was given a noticeably subdued performance in both tempo and tone. The next was the Geistliches Wiegenlied (spiritual, or sacred cradle song), Op. 91, No. 2. Amanda Moody-Schumpert was named as soprano soloist, lighter-toned than one might imagine it, as the song was written for an alto. She gave a lovely rendering of this soulful poem, at times though almost too dramatic for the more impassioned parts of this lullaby.

A short piece followed by the British composer Peter Warlock: “Pieds-en-l’air,” the fifth movement from his Capriol Suite. Written for string orchestra, it was performed here by quartet. The melodious, meditative quality was expressed well by the group.

“Sweet Little Jesus Boy” was sung next by bass-baritone André Peel. Amusingly, it was written by the composer as an apology after he had come across a group of people engaged in drunken revelry. The singer’s tone was very rich, with a fine, expressive change of color in the last refrain and a hushed ending.

The closing piece on this portion of the program was “Cantique de Noël,” known in English as “O Holy Night” by Adolphe Adam, who is well-known for his ballet Giselle. Soprano Burns returned for this number, which she sang in French, then in English, with beautiful long-lined legato and an impassioned climax.

After a five-minute intermission, the program resumed with the Advent portion. Here, Albritten narrated story-telling joined with song, and did so in partnership with the pastor of the church, Lane Sapp. Calvary Moravian Church has been in continuous operation since 1889. The large and stately building can accommodate 675 worshippers. At present they are streaming their services to all interested viewers.

The word Advent derives from the Latin word for coming, and in the Christian liturgy symbolizes the anticipation of the date of Jesus’ birth. It is normally held on the four Sundays preceding Christmas. As is commonly done, this service combined teaching with music. Titled The Miracle of Christmas: A Musical Review of the Traditions of Christmas, it presented the tradition engagingly. Segments of twenty songs were presented by one or more members of a vocal quartet – with one excerpt sung with richness and vigor by Albritten himself – mostly in English, but also with a few in French or German. The growth of the Christmas tree tradition was discussed, with one interesting item being that supposedly it was Luther who first added lights – candles – to the tree. For those who have always wanted to know, wassailing – nowadays taking the form of going from house to house singing carols and getting a little money for Christmas cheer along the way – is pronounced WAHseling.

In the music, Charli Mills stood out with her powerful soprano voice, the old-time English numbers had particular vigor with some entertaining dramatization, and a gospel-style song was infectious. The total event was an appealing combination of fine formal music-making, and enlightening stories with song.