Chapel Hill’s principal community choral ensemble, Voices, opened its 2014-15 season with a fine performance of Christmas music before a large audience in the Hill Hall Auditorium on the University of North Carolina campus. As conducted by artistic director Dr. Sue T. Klausmeyer, the group of nearly 120 singers gave excellent readings of mainly well known carols and classical music of the season.

Not everything was familiar, however. The program’s less-well-known work was “In Terra Pax” by British composer Gerald Finzi, scored for baritone, soprano, and chorus. Described as a reminiscence and based in part on a poem by Robert Bridges, the piece alternates between solo and chorus, with music that is both interesting and accessible. Recent UNC grad Aaron Thacker was the baritone soloist, and Andrea Moore was the soprano soloist. Portions of the piece are introspective, as the baritone serves as a narrator recalling an earlier frosty Christmas Eve, and portions are more extroverted, based on the familiar Nativity story in St. Luke’s Gospel, with the soprano singing the angel’s message to the shepherds. The choral parts span the two ends of the musical spectrum.

Thacker has a fine voice, and he conveyed nicely a sense of thoughtfulness as the narrator recalls the words of the Nativity story. His enunciation occasionally seemed a bit swallowed and indistinct, however. Moore, whose lyric soprano’s voice has a wide range and is rich with vibrato, offered a good bridge between choral sections. The chorus, meanwhile, handled shifts in dynamics well, as the mood of the text changed, and negotiated the key changes without difficulty. Especially stirring was the bold “Glory to God” section, scored as four-note peals by church bells.

More familiar were such favorites as “Shepherd’s Pipe Carol,” “Sussex Carol” (“On Christmas night all Christians sing”), and “Angels We Have Heard on High.” The men in the chorus provided a good introduction to each of the first two verses of John Rutter’s “Pipe Carol,” and the women opened “Sussex Carol” nicely in unison and then in parts, in a particularly good arrangement by Neil Harmon. The closing “Angels We Have Heard on High” was a great setting by Mack Wilberg that opened with Moore singing unaccompanied, then joined by the women, then the men leading the third verse. Several unexpected key changes occurred that made the piece even more interesting.

The program opened with two classical standards: “Behold, a Star from Jacob Shining” by Mendelssohn and several solo and choral selections from the first part of Handel’s Messiah. Soprano Jennifer Canada introduced the Mendelssohn with a brief recitative, followed by a recitative by the men in the chorus, followed by the full choir singing the familiar melody. The tenors handled well the higher scoring in the early part, and the blend of all voice parts was good throughout, creating a thrilling sound in the forte passages and a lovely cushion in the quieter lines of the chorale and at the end.

The chorus sang three sections from “Messiah,” and soloists sang three sections. Moore was joined by alto Cathy Tymann for the lovely “He shall feed his flock” aria (one wishes Handel had written this as a duet, but alas…) and sang solos on the St. Luke’s Gospel texts and on “Rejoice greatly.” Tymann has a lovely mellow voice and sang her part beautifully. In the Gospel texts, Moore’s vibrato occasionally fluttered too much, and she actually sounded better in the lower registers. Still, high marks go to both soloists.

Klausmeyer directed the choral parts briskly, at times at an almost breathless pace, but the singers never lost track or tempo. “And the glory of the Lord” featured a strong bass section, although the tenors were not as firm as elsewhere in the concert. “Glory to God” had crisply sung parts, and the melismas in “His yoke is easy,” which are not easy to negotiate, were performed well in all parts, with precise note placement even at such a fast tempo.

A word of praise, too, goes to the small chamber orchestra that accompanied the concert. The string playing was quite good, and the two trumpets, two oboes and timpani gave extra texture to the instrumentation. Deborah Lee Hollis provided good accompaniment on piano and harpsichord. Especially nice was the piano and oboe accompaniment (by Jennifer Allen). in the “Sussex Carol,” for example.

The Voices chorus and its smaller Cantari ensemble will tackle some interesting and demanding music this season – Dvořák‘s Mass in D, Vierne’s Messe Solennelle, Kodály’s Missa Brevis, Barber’s “Reincarnations,” and Lauridsen’s “Lux Aeterna,” among them. Triangle area residents would be advised to keep track of their future programming, which they may do by checking CVNC‘s calendar.

Meanwhile this holiday program will be repeated on the afternoon of Dec. 20. See the sidebar for details.