One of the delights of covering music in the Triangle for a long time has been the opportunity to see and hear some of our local groups grow and evolve. It's somewhat daunting to realize that we have been witnessing these developments here for 50 years and commenting on them in print for 25.... Way back when, there were two choirs that merited critical attention (and got it, from time to time). The senior group, the Raleigh Oratorio Society, has recently rechristened itself as the NC Master Chorale. As in some churches, a splinter group of Durham-based singers broke away after WWII and formed what was known at the time as the Durham Civic Choral Society, now called the Choral Society of Durham. There wasn't much else in the '50s and '60s, aside from college and university groups and church choirs of various sizes and abilities. The Triangle's growing population and sophistication eventually led to the creation of a batch of other choirs, including (in no particular order) the Capital Area Chorale, the Concert Singers of Cary, the Durham Chorale, and, in Chapel Hill, the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Community Chorus. The latter will celebrate its 25th anniversary in the 2005-6 season, and plans are already underway for major celebrations, centering on a commissioned work by Vermont-based Gwyneth Walker, who visited the Triangle last season for a mini-residency at Meredith College, and whose music has also been performed here by Women's Voices Chorus. The CHCCC has renamed itself, too, dropping "Carrboro" from its title. Since its early days, when its conductor was the distinguished pianist and pedagogue Victor Recondo, the chorus has benefited from several outstanding directors who have worked hard to polish the group's skills and abilities. The incumbent is Sue T. Klausmeyer, who hangs her hat in Duke Chapel, during normal working hours, conducts the UNC Women's GleeClub, Duke University Vespers Ensemble, and Duke Divinity School Choir, and who formerly led the Northeast Piedmont Chorale. That she has brought the CHCC to new levels, artistically, was constantly evident during a Hill Hall concert presented on December 13 before a large and enthusiastic audience.
The program began with a splendid Magnificat (published 1997) by Jonathan Willcocks, son of the famous conductor and composer Sir David Willcocks, two of whose arrangements figured in the second half of the concert. Jonathan W.'s Magnificat was commissioned by the Hickory Choral Society, which is another of our state's great musical treasures. (Triangle readers may be interested to know that the Hickory group's director is Donald Coleman, a product of UNC-Chapel Hill.) The work encompasses standard Magnificat texts, in Latin, plus "There Is No Rose," given just before the concluding Gloria Patri. In Chapel Hill, the soprano soloist was Barbara Peters, of the UNC Music Department faculty, and the 120 or so choristers were accompanied by a 15-person instrumental ensemble consisting of brass, percussion and organ. The piece is richly varied and wide-ranging in its emotional power and impact, and it was beautifully realized. Diction, balance and blend were for the most part admirable, although the soloist's appearance in the grand finale appeared to be largely cosmetic.
There followed part of Walker's impressive Appalachian Carols (1998), for two soloists, chorus and brass quintet, from which was omitted the processional, "Wondrous Love." These were composed for Tucson's Desert Voices, and, like the opening score, they proved richly varied and immediately accessible. Walker's highly original treatments of the "Cherry Tree Carol," "Jesus, Jesus Rest Your Head," and "Go Tell It on the Mountain" merged the best of several old musical traditions. The brass ensemble's work in the first number given suggested our state's strong Moravian heritage and included colorful and effective illustrations of the words (especially in the "...tremble with fear..." section). The second part was sung by soprano Kathy Pierce and tenor William Kodros, with horn accompaniment by Pam Halverson. This sounded like some of Britten's best work, in the Canticles , and was a truly exquisite interlude before the boisterous, jazzy finale.
The second half of the program was devoted to mostly familiar carols, some of which were presented in unfamiliar but consistently impressive versions. These included John Gardner's "Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day," with piano and percussion; Dale Warland's serene arrangement of "What Child Is This," with piano and flute; Edwin Fissinger's haunting "Make We Joy," with three percussionists; and soprano Pierce's return for Paul Sjolund's arrangement of "Away in a Manager." A pair of carols arranged by Mack Willberg featured more elaborate piano, four hands, accompaniment (and piccolo in the second one). The obligatory audience sing-along brought forward two of David Willcock's stunning settings with brass and organ accompaniment. And the grand finale was a big, bold reading of William Mathias' "Sir Christemas."
The instrumentalists included some major players from the region, among whom Wayla Chambo, flute/piccolo, Tim Hudson, trumpet, Steve Wilfong, trombone, John Hanks, timpani, Kathryn Pruitt and Keith Williams, percussion, and keyboardists Marianne Kremer and Jeremy Peterman were the standouts.
It's likely that the recent ice storm wreaked havoc on last-minute preparations for this concert, but aside from some minor ensemble lapses, toward the end, in some of the trickier carols, there were few signs of stress or strain. Under the circumstances, it's amazing the readings were so fine, so much of the time. The Chapel Hill Community Chorus has made tremendous progress over the years, and its current artistic health makes it worthy of special commendation. The cake is further iced by the fact that its programs are handsomely crafted and offer considerable amounts of "new" music. Bravo!