The Diana Wortham Theatre was filled with a large, appreciative audience as the Asheville Lyric Opera presented an exciting musical Christmas party composed of performances by excellent soloists, choral groups, and a fine jazz trio. The evening's benefits, unwrapped toy donations offered by the audience, became a part of the Asheville-Buncombe County Christian Ministries' program for this Christmas season.
The music of the evening was standard Christmas carols as well as popular music which held the audience's attention from the beginning of the program. The choral groups — Pastyme, Voices in the Laurel, the Greater Works Gospel Praise Team, and the Mars Hill College Choir and Chamber Singers — performed the majority of the standard carols. Each of these groups sang very well and displayed distinct musical skills. I was particularly pleased with the Mars Hill College Choir and Chamber Choir, directed by Dr. Joel Reed. The Choir offered excellent performances of some difficult pieces, including "Jubilate Deo" from Mark Wilberg's Tres Cantus Laudendi and "Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day." In singing these pieces, the Choir revealed its ability to handle difficult rhythms and harmonies and displayed an admirably homogeneous choral sound. The Mars Hill Chamber Singers, not to be outdone, presented impeccable performances of "Psallite," "Coventry Carol," "Fum, Fum, Fum," and "A Christmas Portrait."
In addition, two smaller groups gave strong performances which inspired their audience. Pastyme, composed of eight excellent voices, presented with great expression several numbers including "Advent Calendar," "A Spotless Rose," and "Carol of the Field Mice," all of which caused everyone in the hall to listen breathlessly to each phrase. Voices in the Laurel, also a small group but capable of filling the hall with beautiful sound, sang with expression and excitement the well-known "Jesus, Jesus, Rest Your Head," "Children, Go Where I Send Thee," and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas."
As if the choral groups were not enough to entertain any audience, everyone in the theatre enjoyed the admirable singing of a number of soloists who added their voices to the Christmas party. Baritone David Starkey, a fine singer who is the General and Artistic Director of the Asheville Lyric Opera, took the stage to sing "Sweet Little Jesus Boy" with supreme expressiveness and revealed the warmth and beauty of his voice. Dominic Aquilino, also possessing a rich baritone, used his expressive voice to delight the audience with the perennial favorite, "White Christmas." Sopranos, too, took their turns on stage to reveal excellent vocal skills. Cara Ray Burrus sang "I'll Be Home For Christmas" in a reflective, thoughtful, rich voice which must have caused the audience to think about Christmases past. And Heather Ferguson sang the Christmas classic "O Holy Night," displaying the beauty and power of her soprano voice to close the evening's concert and send all of us away from the theatre with the sound of her voice echoing pleasurably in our heads.
Before I end this review, I must take the time to express my appreciation to the Jazz Trio, including pianist Brad Curtioff, who served as the festive party's director of all the music of the evening, Bruce Lang, bass, and Justin Watt, drums. This trio got the evening's events started with a brisk arrangement of "Jazz Up Your Holidays" and in so doing primed everyone in the audience to enjoy all the great music prepared for their pleasure.