Last week I had the lovely opportunity to attend Elon Camerata's "Celebration of Light," a warm, contemplative, and immersive holiday choral concert. On Friday, Director Jayson Snipes and the Piedmont Chamber Singers presented a holiday concert on the other end of the spectrum: a joyous and colorful celebration. While their themes were the same and the concerts similarly titled (the PCS concert was called "Light"), these two beautiful performances displayed the harmonious but contrasting moods brought out by the holiday season. Yearning, awe, gratefulness, and joy – these feelings often intertwine and overlap within us but are subtly differentiated in art. A little bit of context: St. Timothy's Episcopal Church in Winston-Salem is a gorgeous venue filled with warm woodwork. Their precious and locally famous Hook and Hastings organ from 1898 (recently renovated) glows with ornately-stenciled copper pipes. Walking in and around the sanctuary, there is a pleasing contrast between the feeling of closeness and coziness in the relatively small floor plan and the feeling of spaciousness and airiness from the relatively high ceiling. This is a lovely place for any music but especially moving for a holiday choral concert!
Snipes and the choir made their intentions clear with the very first piece – Craig Courtney's "Let Their Be Light." This is no reverent and polite holiday hymn, but rather an explosive and rhythmic fanfare influenced by Blues and Gospel music. Particularly impressive was the articulate unity in the bass section's repeated phrase "let there be light out of the darkness shining."
Following the opening, and then at intervals throughout the concert, the audience was invited to join the choir in carols. "O Come, All Ye Faithful" gave us our first chance to hear the string quartet in action. Violinists Corine Brouwer and Monika Wilmot, violist Gregorio Midero, and cellist Meaghan Skogen enhanced the choir to wonderful effect. Adding strings to a chorus is not terribly uncommon, but the clear acoustic of St. Timothy's seemed to highlight the woodiness of the quartet against the lushness of the choir. Enchanting!
With the evening's third selection we were treated to a third distinct instrumentation. PCS accompanist Norris Norwood took to the key-desk of the Hook and Hastings organ for Buxtehude's "Wie Schön Leuchtet der Morgenstern" ("How beautifully shines the morning star"). This piece represents a genre of North-German organ music called "chorale fantasia," in which a Lutheran Hymn is freely treated to a variety of colors and textures. Buxtehude's "Wie Schön..." is positively kaleidoscopic, and Norwood did an excellent job of choosing registrations to match the variations.
The program continued to alternate between sound worlds in a joyous fashion. The entire concert was excellent, but there were two more highlights especially deserving of discussion. Morten Lauridsen's "O Magnum Mysterium" is one of the composer's most famous works, and justly so. This difficult piece contrasts flowing, honey-like phrases with sudden, achingly beautiful changes of key and mood. With careful intonation and stable breath support the choir wove the piece together beautifully.
The closing selection was "Across the Vast, Eternal Sky" by Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo. In the choral world Gjeilo is famous for his lush harmonies, and this piece was no disappointment in that regard. "Across the Vast..." is a soaring composition adding both piano and strings to the choir – a breathtaking ending to a joyous celebration. Sincerest congratulations to Snipes, Norwood, and the excellent Piedmont Chamber Singers!