It is important that symphony orchestras not appear as elite, out-of-touch institutions that are only for certain segments of the community. The North Carolina Symphony spends a majority of its time traveling the state and playing for schools and community groups and displaying its craft to citizens who might not ordinarily attend a subscription concert. The Durham Symphony Orchestra (DSO), within a countywide boundary, also is committed to involving school music ensembles and young artists in atypical venues as partners in their music making. One of their most appealing programs is the annual “Holiday Pops Concert,” which takes place at the Durham Armory, and which, for the past several years, has involved a choral ensemble from the Durham School of the Arts (DSA).

In 20 years of living in Durham I have somehow never had an opportunity to be inside the Armory, so I didn’t quite know what to expect. Were they going to play the “1812 Overture” with real cannons? Nothing of the sort, of course. The only dangerous items present were the copious quantities of rich, delicious, calorie-laden desserts from several area bakeries and individuals. Admission to this concert was divided between those who chose to sit in the upper level to watch and listen and the majority of guests, who sat at tables in the lower level. This had more of the feeling of a banquet or awards ceremony than an orchestral concert. The price of admission for this lower level category included unlimited access to the above-mentioned delicacies and coffee, along with a cash beer and wine bar. Even before the music began, this was a very enjoyable evening, although it was not the place for someone on a diet.

The DSO was set up at the front of the armory, with all of the strings on floor level with winds and brass hovering above on a small stage. Like anything else, there are good holiday arrangements and there is shlock that makes you wish that Christmas came but once a decade. This concert, in the first part, featured two excellent medleys of holiday favorites, “Christmas Memories” and “It’s Christmas Time.” These were very creative arrangements, led by Music Director Alan Neilson and played with a lot of spirit and skill by the orchestra. This part of the program also featured several selections, also favorites, that had been played in an earlier pops concert by the DSO. The last selection was the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah , featuring the Durham School of the Arts Chorale in a preview of their portion of the program.

The orchestra had a well-deserved chance to sit out the middle portion of the evening’s program, which was turned over to the DSA Chorale, directed by Scott Hill. This is the final year of Hill’s tenure as one of the most respected music educators in our state; she has been at the helm of all choral activities at the DSA since it opened in 1995. The Chorale sang a wonderfully varied program mostly a cappella but using student accompanists on electric piano on a few selections. This is the elite choral ensemble at DSA, and they traveled comfortably between works from Copland’s The Tender Land to spirituals to a hilarious set of variations on “Jingle Bells.” Other highlights included a lovely work by North Carolina composer Daniel Gawthrop named “Sing Me to Heaven” and a folk song from the Georgian republic sung in the original language and conducted by student Caitlin Felsman. The Chorale has a lovely, mature sound along with excellent intonation and diction. Whoever takes over Hill’s position will inherit a tradition of excellence that will be a challenge to continue or surpass.

The Chorale received a tumultuous standing ovation – there were many proud parents in the audience. The orchestra returned for a Christmas sing-along with lyrics provided in the programs. By this time, the cash bar had made quite a killing, so some of the singing was of questionable quality and volume, but it was all in fun. Besides the music, food and drink, there was also a silent auction for many items, and a raffle for the chance to conduct the DSO. The winning gentleman got to wave his arms up and down in march tempo to Sousa’s “Stars & Stripes Forever.” Since his beat had not even a passing resemblance to what the DSO was playing, it made you again think of that age-old question: are conductors really necessary?

It was ironic that during much of the concert, at least at my table, the people were quieter than at most standard concerts I’ve attended. There was no rustling of programs, whispering, cell phones going off or six-minute candy unwrapping. This was a very special evening, and I highly recommend the program the next time this season rolls around.