The Choral Society of Durham (CSD), under the leadership of conductor and artistic director Rodney Wynkoop, presented an eclectic mix of unique arrangements of German Christmas carols and J.S. Bach’s magnificent Magnificat. The concert took place in the recently-reopened Page Auditorium on Duke University’s West Campus, which is currently exploding in new construction, renovations, and additions; it’s basically a new era for this esteemed institution. (More on my impressions of the “new” Page later.)

J.S. Bach’s Magnificat, about the same length as many of his cantatas, is based on the Canticle of Mary, her words of praise to God after learning she will give birth to Jesus. Interestingly, it was originally written in the key of E-flat, but seven years later, in 1730, Bach transposed it to D, probably to accommodate the difficult and exposed woodwind and trumpet parts. The orchestral forces are beyond the usual Baroque setup. There are twelve sections with the tone of the work being generally celebratory and bright.

The CSD is an enormous chorus, numbering approximately 140, representing singers of all ages, experience, and expertise. Accompanying the choir was a medium-sized orchestra consisting of many of the top players in the state as well as oboist Joe Robinson, former principal of the New York Philharmonic.

The opening chorus, “Magnificat,” is, among other glorious attributes, a showpiece for three trumpets: Don Eagle, Van Zimmerman, and Christopher Westphal, on this occasion. Coming in cold at the very start with high, fast notes, and steadying intonation among the trumpets and with the chorus and the rest of the orchestra is a monumental task, but the three trumpeters breezed through it with great precision and flair. The vocal soloists were Maria Alu, soprano, Sarah Love Taylor, alto, John Kramar, bass, and tenor Robert Bracey, a frequent contributor to many performances in this region. Unlike Messiah and many other Baroque masterpieces, the soloists here don’t really have showoff-type parts. They all handled their texts and the music with a sense of appropriate style, excellent intonation, and beautiful sound.

It is no easy task to instill musical discipline into 140 voices singing sixteenth notes so that they are rhythmically unified and in step, but this was accomplished. The “Omnes generationes” was particularly exciting, generating great energy. For the most part the chorus also maintained good intonation across all sections as well as pinpoint attacks and cutoffs. Unfortunately, the old adage that all it takes is one player/singer in a section to cancel out the good of the rest reared its head. There were too many instances of one singer (usually a soprano or tenor but impossible to zero in on a particular person) who liked to belt out his/her non-solo part way above the dynamic level of the rest of the section. This tends to be more an issue of ego than musical ability but needs to be nipped in the bud by the director.

The orchestra was uniformly excellent and full-bodied. (Arguments about “correct” Baroque practice are futile and about as likely to be resolved as someone arguing with a Trump supporter.)

This was the first classical performance I attended at Page Auditorium since they reopened after some renovation work, and I am not impressed. While the orchestra level seats have more leg room and are somewhat more comfortable, I find the sound to be static, constrained, and stuck on the stage. Perhaps this was an intentional acoustical calculation since most shows at Page are amplified. I know they are totally different spaces, but I can’t help comparing this with the exquisite acoustical results at Baldwin Auditorium and feeling that Page could have been much better.

The second half was much more quiet and intimate as just a few string players remained, although the chorus was basically the same. The first four selections, ”Christ Was Born on Christmas Day,” Orlando di Lasso’s “Resonet in Laudibus,” “Lo, How a Rose e’er Blooming,” and “Blest Mary Wanders Through the Thorn” were all a cappella. Except for the wonderfully austere di Lasso work, these (and several more numbers to come) demonstrated what creative and inspired arrangements can do to spice up carols that we may have heard literally thousands of times.

Two versions of “In Dulci Jubilo,” one arranged by John Rutter, with piano accompaniment, and the other a setting by Buxtehude, with strings, showed variety across centuries. The final programmed piece was a fascinating arrangement of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” by Dan Forrest (b.1978). While the vocal parts are somewhat traditional, the four-hands piano accompaniment (played by David Cole and Scott Hill) is unexpected and refreshing. A placid and reverential “Silent Night” served as the encore. With only starting pitches given by the pianist, this huge congregation of singers did not veer from their melodic road, rife with numerous hazards, and evoked a sense of peace and comfort for the audience. 

This program will be repeated on the afternoon of Dec. 13. For details, see the sidebar.