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Ollie Reynolds and Quentin Miller Sr., were two music educators in the Asheville Public Schools who decided in 1969 that Asheville needed a serious choral ensemble composed of African-Americans. At the time, Reynolds was music director at Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church and Quentin Miller was music director at St. Matthias Episcopal Church. For most of its 38 year history, the Reynolds-Miller Chorale, as the group became known, has rehearsed at St. Matthias, and it has become a tradition for the chorale to present a Christmas Concert as part of the church’s varied Chamber Music Series.
The present St. Matthias Episcopal Church building was constructed between 1894 and 1898 under the supervision of James Vester Miller, and occupies a scenic site high above Charlotte St. on the east side of downtown Asheville. The parish was created in 1857 to serve freed blacks and now has a 50% Caucasian, 50% African-American congregation, including present-day members belonging to the same Miller family that included James Vester Miller and Quentin Miller Sr. I should disclose that I too am a member of St. Matthias.
On Sunday, December 9, two hundred persons filled the beautiful sanctuary to hear the twenty-two member Reynolds-Miller Chorale present music of the season, well-prepared and well-directed by Trevor S. Chavis. The chorale was accompanied by organist Margaret O. Kirkland, pianist William Hamilton and for some selections the St. Matthias String Quartet (Lew Gelfond, Judy Vliestra, Cynthia Gagne and Ron Lambe).
The program began with the familiar harmonies of the traditional French carol “Angels We Have Heard on High.” Rather than a uniform forte, the carol would have benefited from some variation in the dynamics to reflect the text, especially for passages such as “See him in the manger laid.” The blend of voices was generally good here and throughout the program.
Dmitri Bortnyansky (1751-1825) was a prodigious orchestral and choral composer from the Ukraine. Orchestral music, operas, and Russian Orthodox service music were products of his distinguished career in St. Petersburg. Tchaikovsky’s arrangement of Bortnyansky’s “Cherubim Song” was one of the highlights of the program. Another highlight was an a capella arrangement by Noah Ryder of the spiritual “Mary Borned a Baby.” Excellent diction and careful attention to vocal sound distinguished this performance.
Norman Luboff’s arrangement of the Austrian carol “Still, Still, Still” might have constituted a third highlight. The a capella passages were fine, but the forces were not well-balanced in the accompanied passages. This quiet work suffered from a bad choice of registration on the tracker organ.
The men’s ensemble sang Watson’s “Child of Bethlehem.” In this work there were some significant problems with intonation, scooped notes and tonal color, although the four-part harmony was executed with skill by the seven men.
As the program drew close to its end, the audience was invited to join the singers in the George Frederick Handel carol “Joy to the World.” The final work again featured the chorale, accompanied by all the instrumental forces, in Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus.” In this work, the sopranos especially distinguished themselves.
Throughout this concert, the Reynolds-Miller Chorale showed the results of good direction, intelligent rehearsal and dedication to the music. However, a general concern presented itself about the composition of the choir, especially the tenor and bass sections. While the inclusion of some well-trained older singers adds to the maturity of the interpretation and often helps with choral intonation, voices do age. A section dominated by older members will show its age through its tone. This chorale is at risk of having its sound dominated by the timbre of older voices. This is a good choir that likely was excellent in the past, and could become excellent again if members would do some aggressive recruiting to add a few younger members whose richer tone would leaven the vocal mix.