The weather could not have been more frightful unless it had actually been snowing: cold, windy, and rainy all day, the perfect excuse to stay home by the fire, "dreaming of women and glasses of beer," to paraphrase James Taylor. And yet over 150 hardy souls chose this concert and were amply rewarded (whether they realized it or not). The Greenville Choral Society's Chamber Chorale, under the direction of Lisa Stockard, presented Seasonal Selections; the Concert Choir and the New Carolina Sinfonia presented Camille Saint-Saëns's Christmas Oratorio, Opus 12. The acoustic in the First Baptist Church of Kinston is quite good. The Chamber Chorale had not the easiest time moving onto the cramped stage/podium area; in addition to the Chorale, a little corral sequestered the piano and its player, making space even tighter. The piano, though well played, contributed nothing to the performance or the music. This group is perfectly capable of singing without piano accompaniment. And they sing in much better tune than a piano in equal temperament.
The Chamber Chorale presented the "Sussex Carol;" "The Night He was Born," by Bob Chilcott; "Ave Maria," by Franz Biehl; Rutter's "There Is A Flower;" "We Wish You A Merry Christmas;" and "Silent Night." The "Sussex Carol," ("On Christmas Night all Christians Sing") was delivered with excellent balance and precise diction. There was a rather strong sense of Robert Shaw style: clearly singers were from the American South and not from Sussex. The Chamber Chorale is an impressive group of singers with a great sense of ensemble. Their intonation and rhythm were excellent. They sang throughout with great clarity under the precise control of their skillful director.
Though the excellent balance and diction continued, Chilcott's "The Night He Was Born" was even more American in sound, this time more like Pennsylvanians, specifically those of Fred Waring. The sound got more Broadway and the sopranos were far too prominent. Biehl's "Ave Maria" had good tenor and bass presence; again there was much too much soprano. The choir needs to stand still. Throughout the whole Chamber Chorale performance they bobbed their books mostly in tempo and swayed left and right until the undulations looked like an inlet troubled by the tide setting against the wind.
John Rutter's "There Is A Flower" was truly beautiful through all the verses. There was much less sense of regionalism in the diction, the intonations were superb, and the sopranos and altos sang without the shimmering strings effect of the earlier pieces. They can do it! The only flaw in "We Wish You A Merry Christmas" was Arthur Warrell's banal arrangement. But worse was to come. The final piece was an arrangement of "Silent Night" by Craig Courtney that was undoubtedly the vilest I've ever heard, even when executed so beautifully by the Chorale. The schmaltzy piano intro gives a bitter foretaste of horrors yet to come. This sweet innocent naïve Austrian carol was forcibly assaulted by Big Band and Bad Christian Radio. The Chorale did everything that was asked of them and still couldn't keep it from being awful.
The Chamber Chorale is a fine strong group with a good conductor; they can do good work if given better fodder than this program. An adjustment of the size of the sections could be advantageous; six sopranos and six altos is overpowering to five tenors and four basses. Perhaps Ms. Stockard is in the position of the Israelites and can make bricks only with the clay and straw she's given; nevertheless, high praise to the singers in the Chamber Chorale.
The stage area had seemed cramped before with 22 musicians. Now nominally 68 musicians had to get on stage, an awkward lengthy process. It was unfortunate that no one saw fit to close the piano. Its rather grand lid sadly blocked a number of singers from sight (although it probably did not adversely affect the sound). After a very brief tune-up, maestro Jeffrey Ward began the Prelude to Saint-Saëns's Christmas Oratorio. As the program notes mention, Saint-Saëns saw this as something of an homage to J. S. Bach. The siciliano-style Prelude played here by organ and strings, gave the audience a chance to hear just how bad an organ reed stop can be when made by a mechanic instead of a musician. Further along, as the composition becomes more bombastic the bad reeds fit right it. In the early bars of the Prelude, the strings always came in perhaps an eighth of a tone sharp from the organ but perfectly in tune with each other. They were, however listening, and it was always only a fraction of a beat before they had all adjusted and sounded very good. As they got further into the piece, they knew where the organ was and came in very precisely on pitch. Excellent work.
The soloists, Tim Messina, tenor; Jami Rhodes, mezzo; Carolyn Myers, soprano; and Christian Waugh, baritone, all had strong and pleasant voices that stood up well to the choir. Rhodes and Myers have an awful lot of vibrato; Myers's diction is largely unintelligible; Waugh is too theatrical for my taste. I hope Messina, a young voice of much promise, will take pains to cultivate a bel canto style.
The choir has their first opportunity to sing in the "Gloria." Their powerful, well tuned, relatively vibrato-free entry was like the sunrise after the solo quartet of "Et Pastores Errant" [sic. The Vulgate text is of course "erant." The program was heavily spiced with such errors.]
"Benedictus Qui Venit" is a piece of Saint-Saëns's program music; it sounds like something he re-used from an imaginary opera about East Indians meeting gladiators in the Circus Maximus. The organ and harp beginning sets the scene and the vocal lines entwine like the reptiles of snake charmers, with a generous touch of Offenbach's Orphée aux enfers for good measure. It's a very interesting composition and was very well performed but does not suit the text of Benedictus.
The choir had a composition much better suited to the text in "Quare fremuerunt gentes;" we know it from Messiah as "Why do the nations so furiously rage together?" Saint-Saëns gives the choir something good to rage with, and they were definitely together and strong, without yelling. The style becomes much more neutral as they work into the following "Gloria patri;" the singing continued on a very professional level.
In "Tecum Principium" the harp and organ writing is not so circus-like, with neat work by harpist Gen Bolena and organ accompanist Catherine Garner. The soprano showed a nice tone color.
In the "Alleluia," Waugh, Rhodes, and Myers were joined by soprano Jessica Laliberte; the sopranos and baritone sang one idea, with Ms. Rhodes supporting a different theme.
The opening siciliano then returned and was incorporated into "Consurge," "Filia Sion," followed by a finale of "Tollite Hostias," strong choral singing.
The nineteenth-century French highbrow nature of the Christmas Oratorio seemed largely lost on the audience, in spite of the excellent performance turned in by everyone involved. There was weak applause, which ended before the large choir and orchestra could even begin to file off stage. The pastor appeared, seized the microphone, and tried to turn the concert ex post facto into a prayer meeting, in spite of the early performance of the "Figgy Pudding Song;" not exactly The Message. He then called for further rounds of applause. All this time the choir was still far from off the stage. While they were still moving, he exhorted everyone to stand for a prayer of dismissal. There are some people who think the Great Commission excuses all lapses of common sense and good taste.