Meymandi Concert Hall is decked out for the season this time of year with greenery and red bows and ribbons adding the festive touch. It was the North Carolina Master Chorale however that filled the room with festive and beautiful sounds on December 11 with its annual "Joy of the Season" concert. This year the concert was sub-titled "A North Carolina Christmas" and featured music having some connection to the Tar Heel State, much of it composed by musicians born in, living in, or working in our fair land.
The program opened with Lara Hoggard's magnificent setting of the medieval chant "Personent Hodie." A brass octet – four trumpets, three trombones and tuba – helped the chorus warm up the hall posthaste. This 180-voice chorus makes a sound that can sweep you out of your seat and up into the ethereal yonder, a sound as silky smooth and rich as Bavarian custard and so soft you are almost afraid to breathe. It takes a choral conductor of extraordinary skill, knowledge and style to accomplish this, especially with a group of this size. Raleigh was most fortunate a couple of years ago when Sturgis' enticement to Indiana fell through mainly due to strikes and other uncertainties in the airline industry. From members of the NCMC I have talked with it, I know it must be a very rewarding – and fun – experience to sing in this group.
Back to the program – after the rousing introit, we heard Three Moravian Anthems, the first of which, "Glory to God in the Highest," by Christian Gregor, was an energetic piece in the early classical style with full brass accompaniment. David Moritz Michael's "Hail Infant Newborn," sung a cappella, was a lovely lullaby. It was hard to believe this was being done by a large community chorus as the delicate lines were sung with such wonderful precision and ensemble. The third of the Moravian anthems, "Shout Ye Heavens," has a brief reference to the "Hallelujah Chorus" and the audience wanted to burst into applause at that point, but composer John Antes was not done yet and neither was Sturgis, who continued, unperturbed, to the conclusion. Some choruses print requests in their programs that applause be held till the ends of sets or till intermission. Such a policy may make the NCMC's performances go more smoothly.
Anthems by two composers North Carolinians have come to love and claim as their own were next on the program. Dan Locklair was represented by "Hodie Christus Natus Est" (from Three Christmas Motets) and "A Christmas Carol," and Robert Ward was present to hear his "That Wondrous Night of Christmas Eve," which describes a growing feeling of joy and excitement as a group of carolers bring the message of Jesus' birth.
The first half of the concert closed with J. Mark Scearce's imaginative setting of "Noel: Christmas Eve 1913" by the English poet, Robert Bridges (1844-1930). The poet makes reference to hearing distant bells ring on a starry Christmas Eve and compares that sound to the music the shepherds heard on the very first Christmas. The third verse of the poem reads:
Tonight I can't help thinking of those towers (the bell towers)
And I pray unto God for their souls and the souls of the world
That stand in towers and ring their bells tonight,
Arms lifted, clutching rattling ropes that race
Into dark above the mad and romping din
That to me heard afar is starry music.
The mad and romping din of 1913 was the precursor of the 1914 war, and the reference to "those towers" has an even heavier and more eerie connotation in the post-9/11 world. Scearce's music depicts the peals of the bells, the solitary voice of the poet and the distant congregational hymn. The piece reaches a climax with a brilliantly grating dissonance followed by the entrance of a bagpipe from the rear of the hall. It was a stunning musical experience with layers of meaning that are still being revealed. Scearce, who is now Director of the Music at North Carolina State University, was present at the performance and acknowledged the enthusiastic applause.
After intermission we heard Scearce's "Morning Star" from Four Christmas Spirituals, and then John Rutter's arrangement of "I Wonder as I Wander" was lovingly sung by the Chorale. Three Christmas Cards by Jacksonville native Kenneth Frazelle were full of folksy imagery and wit; the last was a whimsical setting of the recipe for Syllabub: wine, powdered sugar, lemon juice and whipping cream, or – Grandmother's substitute – cool whip and moonshine!
Jester Hairston was the grandson of slaves at the Hairston plantation at Belew's Creek, NC. After earning a music degree from Tufts University and studying at Juilliard, he worked as an actor and musician on Broadway and in movies and television. We heard his "Christmas Gift," after which Al Sturgis' joyous composition "Sing Noel!" and his arrangement of "What Child Is This?," with some very nice touches, were sung by the men of the Chorale. The full Chorale sang "'Twas in the Moon of Wintertime," arranged by Sally Ann Morris and, "The Blessings of Mary," arranged by Mack Wilberg.
We also heard from the women of the Chorale, who sang "Go Where I Send Thee" in an arrangement by Paul Caldwell and Sean Ivory. Sturgis pulled out all the stops of his irrepressible showmanship in this, relishing and inspiring a rollicking gospel choir performance.
The concert closed with an invigorating and appealing arrangement of "Joy to the World." It was a variation on the melody rather than simply an alteration of harmony with a few added flourishes, as so many carol arrangements seem to be. This was indeed something to behold and a delight to hear – as was this whole wonderful concert.
The Master Chorale's repeat performance, originally scheduled for the following day, got bumped by the Clay Aiken thing. On the up side, some of those planning to be there on Sunday got there on Saturday instead, swelling the audience a bit. Also, I believe that the singers, the excellent brass and percussion ensemble, and steady-as-a-rock accompanist Susan McClaskey Lohr put all the effort and inspiration of the planned two concerts into one. A vigorous bravo to Al Sturgis and the North Carolina Master Chorale!