You probably never encountered a more eclectic set of musical offerings than that dished up by the North Carolina Symphony at Meymandi Concert Hall on a bracing Saturday evening. “A Carolina Christmas” was the program title, and Music Director Grant Llewellyn chose numbers ranging from deep in the baroque era all the way to neo-bluegrass. Lending major help to the orchestra were a huge chorus and a quartet of surpassing folk musicians. (The same program had occurred earlier in the afternoon and on the previous evening.)
Here was no bland, generic “happy holidays” observance, but a full-throated celebration of the upcoming Christmas season. Opening was Hershy Kay’s profuse orchestration of, and variations on, “Joy to the World.” The Concert Singers of Cary, a choral organization of the first rank, were prominent throughout the evening. Their “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” utilized symphony orchestra and large chorus in the grandest tradition. A purely musical highlight was the Singers’ treatment of “Shepherd’s Pipe Carol.” This John Rutter arrangement repeatedly carried the listener “…on the way to Bethlehem” with uncommon charm, enhanced by its many non-obvious rhythms. In an agreeable nod to inclusiveness, the orchestra furnished William Holcombe’s “Festive Sounds of Hanukkah,” tunes not as familiar as those of Christmas but no less celebratory. The chorus led into intermission with a Jeff Kern arrangement of “Angels We Have Heard on High.” Consistent with his witty and informative banter throughout, Llewellyn advised the audience not to attempt a sing-along here. The traditional tune was recognizable, but its beats and sudden turns would have left the would-be singing assistant frustrated.
But audience participation had not been denied. With ornate orchestral arrangements by Bruce Chase, the near-capacity crowd proclaimed that “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas.” They extolled “Silver Bells” and they fantasized about “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire.” If lacking in quality and tonality, they compensated with verve and volume.
The aforementioned quartet comprised soprano/violinist Rhiannon Giddens Laffan, Mike Compton on mandolin, Joe Newberry on banjo and guitar, along with singer/songwriter Laurelyn Dossett as first-among-equals and featured composer. Their instrumental/vocal “Rise Up Shepherds” demonstrated their considerable talents and originality. Giddens Laffan brought a stylish soprano to a stylized version of Adam’s “O Holy Night.” She later joined the Concert Singers in a pure and charming rendition of “I Wonder as I Wander”
These performers, with orchestra and chorus, brought forth the featured work of the evening, Dossett’s The Gathering: A Winter’s Tale in Six Songs. This world premiere “folk cantata” told the appealing story of a prodigal’s return home after too long a time away. Within the songs the ambivalent traveler asks, “…will you remember my face?” She eventually discerns “…the light that leads the traveler home.” Interspersed within the movements occurred a veritable banjo-fiddle-guitar-mandolin hoedown, and a dance sequence with gifted hoofers Giddens Laffan and Newberry. One of the songs was a plaintive lullaby employing the Concert Singers. (High praise is due Aaron Grad, a prolific Seattle-based composer who did the monumental orchestration and so much of the arranging.)
Closing the festivities was the appropriate “Amen Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah. As encore the entire company called upon Handel once again for his “Hallelujah Chorus.” In all numbers the orchestra sounded in peak form. To judge from audience enthusiasm, this evening’s offerings ushered in the Christmas season with unprecedented flair and feeling.