The Chapel Hill Community Chorus (CHCC) engineered a remarkable coup on Friday, December 17, in Hill Hall Auditorium. In the midst of the busiest time of the year, many people had to be actually turned away from attending CHCC's annual Christmas concert. Arriving at what I thought was a very early 7:30 for an 8:00 p.m. performance, I was lucky to get a seat. Their performances are always well attended, but I suspect part of the reason for this heavy turnout was a chance to hear sections of a monumental work that, unfortunately, has been rarely performed in this area – J.S. Bach's Christmas Oratorio.
This work is not an oratorio in the sense of, say, Handel's Messiah, but is instead a series of cantatas for various days from Christmas to Epiphany. The CHCC presented the first two of these cantatas, music rich with variety in a generally bright mood. The assembled forces on stage consisted of a chorus of at least 100 singers, three male soloists, and a selection of some of the best orchestral musicians in this area, all conducted by Sue T. Klausmeyer. There is no orchestral overture as in the great Handel oratorios, but a brilliant and joyous chorus serves as the opening. The trumpet is not given time to slowly warm into his part but is immediately called on to deliver very high, virtuosic parts as he plays off the rhythmic impulse of tympani and oboes. This is a regal, exuberant proclamation, and the choristers ably displayed this effect whenever it was their turn. Tenor soloist Timothy W. Sparks and baritone Henry S. Gibbons are familiar to area audiences, and they rose to the challenge of several very difficult recitatives and arias. But the highlight of singing this evening was countertenor Brad Fugate. This type of voice, which is, in essence, a male soprano using his highly developed falsetto, is something that can sound like someone being strangled — or a parody. Fugate has an incredibly pure, strong, and dead-on-pitch voice that soared above the full forces of the orchestra and chorus. It still is hard to reconcile the sound being emitted from the person singing, but Fugate's voice was something that will long be remembered.
From the unaccompanied works for violin, cello, keyboard, guitar, and organ, to the massive works for chorus, soloists, and orchestra like this one, playing the music of J.S. Bach is something that truly separates the men from the boys. For the most part, the orchestra played well, but there were many instances where it felt like another rehearsal would have turned a competent performance into an inspired one. There were also too many passages where the oboe and oboe d'amore (alto oboe in A) playing together were painfully out of tune. There was a nice positiv organ on stage, played by Marianne Kremer, and this in combination with Virginia Hudson's cello made a wonderful-sounding continuo.
Some words need to be said about the beautiful 30-page program. It contained the complete text of all the selections and detailed biographies of the soloists. In this age of ever decreasing support of the arts, it is heartening to see page after page of advertisements by local merchants and individual supporters. Putting on a concert of this magnitude requires a great deal of money, and ticket sales alone cannot support the expense. Community support of this kind is what enables arts organizations to thrive.
The second half of the program contained a mixture of several well-known carols along with less familiar ones from diverse cultures. Despite the gazillion times we have heard the famous seasonal tunes, they continue to be sung and enjoyed because most have beautiful melodies and rich harmonic possibilities. This leads to almost every arranger and composer taking their shot at them – some more successfully than others. Craig Courtney's arrangements of "O Holy Night" and "Silent Night" are two that missed the mark. They were somewhere between High Church and Vegas – the musical equivalent of oil and water.
There were also three carols from Mexico, Ukraine, and Latvia. These were all lovely tunes that are little known to Anglo audiences. They made you curious about the musical riches of other cultures that are so often ignored in favor of yet another round of the usual favorites.
What would any holiday concert (or service) be without the faithful joining in for several verses? Klausmeyer turned to conduct the audience in four verses of "The First Nowell" in an arrangement by David Willcocks.
The evening ended with Suite II of "The Many Moods of Christmas," a joint effort by two great names in music, Robert Shaw and Robert Russell Bennett. This is holiday "pop" music in the best sense of the word. The orchestra rejoined the chorus for a rousing performance of five holiday numbers that brought the evening to a musically satisfying conclusion.
Note: For photos and sound clips from this performance, provided by Mark Manring Recording and Photography, see http://www.manring.net/recording/photos/CHCC_Christmas_12-17-04_Sampler/ [inactive 4/07].