The winter months are a time of holidays, family, food, and cheer, including music sung to celebrate many different holiday traditions. However, these times are also cold and sparse, especially to families who cannot afford both to keep their homes warm and feed their families. The Duke Chorale focused on supporting some of these needy families in Durham by collecting donations for the Urban Ministries of Durham in place of admission costs at its annual holiday concert Tuesday night. The price for entrance was advertised as one non-perishable food item. Billed as a "Christmas Concert," the program included a mixture of sacred and secular programming, but the focus was primarily on the story of Christmas from the Bible, including a traditional reading from Luke 2:1-20.
The Duke Chorale performed in the historic Duke University Chapel, which lends grandeur to any event, but the Chorale certainly was not overshadowed by its venue. This spacious and lavishly-crafted cathedral has acoustics that are lovely for developing college voices. Beginning with pre-concert music at 6:30 p.m., the concert was informal, with guest organist Tom Bloom playing unobtrusive seasonal music as guests entered and completely filled the pews. The variety of classic carols and more unfamiliar hymns included "Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!," "It Came upon a Midnight Clear," "March of the Toys," "What Child is This?," "Gesù Bambino," and "Joy to the World." The sound of the organ was resonant, lilting, and drifted slowly across the rapidly-filling space.
At 7:00 p.m., the Chorale began the featured concert, which included traditional music utilizing the organ as well as piano accompaniment, by Mary Hamilton. Director Rodney Wynkoop led the choir in rousing renditions of traditional carols full to the brim with holiday cheer. Songs performed included "Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence," "Lo, How a Rose," "The Holly and the Ivy," Norman Luboff's arrangement of "Still, Still, Still," and a medley of Irving Berlin tunes that included "Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep," "White Christmas," and "Happy Holiday." The piano was a little out of tune, but the acoustics allowed the intonation to settle by the time it reached the back of the hall. Unfortunately, this also muddied the singing quite a bit; if not for the printed lyrics in the program, several songs would have been unrecognizable.
Other less-traditional songs included Benjamin Britten's "This Little Babe" from A Ceremony of Carols, Franz Biebl's setting of "Ave Maria," a setting of "O Magnum Mysterium" by Tomás Luis de Victoria, an adaptation of "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" by Arthur Sullivan, and "Judah's Land," an Appalachian carol arranged by David N. Johnson. These were all very cohesive and nice, showing off the Chorale's excellent sense of balance between the parts. For several selections a smaller Chamber Chorale sang, but they did not step out or change the formation to distinguish themselves from the rest of the choir. Doing so might have helped them sound more confident, but overall this smaller group's additional work paid off.
About halfway through the concert, the choir invited those who had brought food donations to process up the center aisle and deposit the food at tables while the entire audience sang several carols in succession. The warm Christmas cheer was spoiled a little bit by people trying to save their seats, climb over each other to exit the aisles, and comfort babies too small to be attending concerts as some cried for nearly the entire time. However, the sentiment was there, and the choir collected copious amounts of canned foods, boxes of food mixes, and coupons.
The best moments the choir had were in the Chorale's a cappella selections, which included the plainsong processional "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" as the choir entered through the aisles, "Comfort, Comfort Ye My People," and Virgil Thompson's "O My Deir Hert." Several other tunes were a little shaky, with attacks and releases that were uneven, but to the untrained listener they were still very nice. Some of these latter tunes included "In the Bleak Midwinter" by Gustav Holst, "Pat-a-pan," Katherine K. Davis' "Carol of the Drum," "Sleigh Ride," and a John Rutter arrangement of "We Wish You a Merry Christmas." Rutter's "Candlelight Carol" was the most impressive song of the night, with wide dynamic contrast, beautiful tone, and an absolutely breathtaking blend between the men and women. It might have helped if the lyrics to the third verse had been printed in the program, but even without all the words, the song was beautiful.
The choir also encouraged the audience to join in singing several hymns periodically throughout the concert, adding to the Christmas cheer. The audience joined in on "O Come, All Ye Faithful," "What Child is This," "Silent Night," "Away in a Manger," "Deck the Hall," "Angels We Have Heard on High," "Joy to the World," "The First Noel," and "We Three Kings." The Chorale further involved the audience with the reading of a story for the children, who were invited to come sit before the altar. One of the choir members read aloud Mr. Willoughby's Christmas Tree by Robert Barry for everyone to hear. Another nice touch was inviting the audience to sing "Jingle Bells" while several choir members distributed small jingle bells to as many audience members as they could reach. The tinkling of the bells accompanied the choir through its final two numbers, "Sleigh Ride" and "We Wish You a Merry Christmas."
Thanks to the Duke University Chorale for spreading Christmas cheer as much as possible through a hectic Duke campus; apart from the basketball game and two other athletic events, there were several accidents surrounding the campus on Tuesday night. The choir members' festive dress and lovely singing helped to remind everyone that the holidays are coming and that we can all afford to donate one can of soup and allow ourselves to enjoy some music this season.