With the re-opening of the beautifully renovated Memorial Hall on the UNC Chapel Hill campus in September, 2005, it can be quite a letdown to return to the unfortunate environs of Hill Hall. Once you experience the good life it’s hard to go back. The Chapel Hill Community Chorus (CHCC), with approximately 130 singers, plus a smallish orchestra and vocal soloists, crowded onto the stage for their annual Christmas concert, this year named “Star of Wonder.” Sue T. Klausmeyer has been conductor of this community ensemble since 2000, and in this brief time she has consistently raised the performance level of this group and presented substantial works of the choral literature.
The CHCC is a community group in the truest sense of the word – singers of all ages and backgrounds coming together for the love of music and the sense of accomplishment that goes with learning and performing great music. Judging by the very glossy and professionally done programs that include a large number of advertisers, the business community is strongly supportive and proud of this group.
This 2006 Christmas concert was divided into two very distinct halves, both in terms of the type of works performed, and the subsequent effectiveness of the performance. The first half was completely taken up with Parts V and VI of the mammoth Christmas Oratorio by J.S. Bach. This year’s concert was actually the culmination of a three-year project as the earlier parts were performed in the immediate preceding years. This rather lengthy first half was followed by a hodge-podge of various carol arrangements plus the inevitable audience sing-along.
There were some problems from the start, much of which can be attributed to the doors inexplicably open to the outside cold until the program started. Once the doors were shut everyone felt the oppressive heat blasting – the instruments liked this even less than the humans. You could almost see tuning pegs slipping and woodwinds contracting as the poor wood and metal became quite disoriented. The Christmas Oratorio, and especially these instrumental sections, is weighted towards the soloists, so the chorus almost became secondary. Soprano Jeanne Fischer, a UNC graduate, was the most effective in both her clarity of pitch and stylistic integrity. Timothy W. Sparks, a frequent soloist in local operas and other choral ensembles, was the tenor. Countertenors, although increasing in popularity, are a rare breed that require a falsetto with such strength that it has power and resonance similar to a full-voiced sound. Jonas Laughlin dangerously straddled that land between success and parody, resulting in a pinched and distracting performance.
The orchestra, which comprised many familiar names and faces, played with a light and steady assuredness that supported but never overshadowed the chorus or soloists. Well played obbligato solos by concertmistress Margaret Partridge and the nearly continuous continuo of bassoonist Becky Hammontree are just two names that stand out. The chorus had a tendency to resort to a nearly strained screaming when increased volume was called for, or they approached pitches higher than most were comfortable with. Overall, it seemed as if there was a cautious, self-conscious approach that is usually the hallmark of a stage in musical preparation where you can play/sing the notes but are not yet quite secure enough to transcend technique and move on to the subtleties that make great music making. This was one concert where I would have preferred the following night’s performance. A greater sense of confidence would have made a world of difference.
The opening work of the second half, "Behold, a Star from Jacob Shining" by Mendelssohn was the highlight of the entire evening. This style seemed to suit this chorus best and you could feel the energy and feeling that went into this lovely work.Klausmeyer then introduced her new chamber choir, Cantari, in "The Kings and the Shepherds" by Daniel Pinkham. By this point in the program there was a definite withering effect from both the heat in the hall and the length of the program. Concentration by both audience and performers was on its last leg. This was alleviated, to some degree, when we all got to stand up and sing five verses of “The First Noel” in an arrangement by David Willcocks.
The evening ended with a work called "Carol Symphony" by James Bassi. This is divided into three sections named Bells, Hymn, and Dance. As expected, the first featured tubular bells overpowering most of what was going on with the rest of the orchestra. In what both looked and sounded out of place, soloist Elizabeth Freeman sang the Hymn into a microphone. The final Dance was based on the lovely tune 'Tomorrow Will Be My Dancing Day." This used the inherent rhythmic grace to nice effect and saved what was otherwise a bland holiday composition.