The highly anticipated Christmas concerts at Duke Chapel by the Choral Society of Durham are always well executed and polished performances, but this year’s was even more special with the presentation of A Christmas Cantata by Geoffrey Bush. This lovely work for strings and oboe was followed in the second half by a varied and eclectic assortment of English carols. So, it was the British Isles all the way, but eventually the pastoral idyllic lushness, regardless of the always pristine performances that are a given by Rodney Wynkoop led choral groups, was like a dinner of only desserts.
The string orchestra was an assemblage of the finest musicians in the Triangle, and oboist Bo Newsome played some exemplary passages in several works as the only person there blowing into his instrument. You can’t have a proper Christmas concert without harp and Laura Byrne added just the right touch, especially in the orchestra only performance of "Fantasia on Greensleeves" by Ralph Vaughan Williams. The chorus of nearly 120 singers had their chance in several selections to sing a cappella, and the one that was most effective was John Tavener’s "Annunciation" which featured a solo chorus placed behind the masses, and full choir. Apparently, the hidden choir was not aware of “the glare” that Wynkoop gave the parent who remained while their child was screaming, and they began before everyone was ready. Despite the minor glitch, this was like an aural palate cleanser with its clashing dissonances sung with chilling precision.
You can’t possibly have a British Christmas program without some of the great standards arranged by David Willcocks or John Rutter, and this was well represented. The second half began with Willcocks’ arrangements of “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen” and ended with his take on “Sussex Carol.” These, as well as Rutter’s adaptation of “Wexford Carol,” always mix quite nicely the familiar with some delicious harmonic surprises sprinkled throughout. One of the nice breaks from the sweetness was a hearty performance of Richard Terry's delightful and simple setting of the 15th century carol ”Myn Lyking.” The reduced chamber choir sounded intimate and ye olde English/Irish pronunciations were clear.
The first half was taken up entirely with Bush’s Christmas Cantata, and despite the fact that this is rarely performed and a premiere by the Choral Society of Durham, it has the feel of a favorite old sweater. Bush wrote this in 1947 and the influence of Vaughan Williams and Benjamin Britten is nearly plagiaristic. This nine-movement cantata consists of a selection of well-known, mainly English carols that for the most part retain their direct spirit but also employ subtle and unexpected harmonic touches. No one navigates the treacherous acoustical topography of Duke Chapel better than Maestro Wynkoop, and he was in exceptional form this evening. The balance between the chamber size orchestra, occasional soloists and choir was handled like a sound engineer at his control board. This is no small feat and was integral to an exceptional musical evening of something old and something new in the land of Duke blue.