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The North Carolina Master Chorale and the NCMC Chamber Choir's impressive program, "Joy of the Season," made the warm spirit of Christmas a palpable experience. The two choirs, accompanied by excellent brass and percussion ensembles as well as fine piano and organ support by Susan McClaskey Lohr, were ably prepared and conducted by Alfred E. Sturgis, Music Director. The music Sturgis selected for this concert offered great variety and many levels of difficulty, and was a perfect showcase of both ensembles' signature choral sound — clear, effortless and vocally homogeneous in all parts. The Chorale performed ably all the music Sturgis had chosen for it.
The opening piece, John Alexander's "A Carol Fantasy," began the evening's music with a burst of joyous excitement and room-filling power, which foreshadowed the character of much of the music heard later in the concert. The mysterious, atmospheric quality of Jennifer Higdon's new carol, "Deep in the Night," with its quiet but increasingly intense dissonances and impeccable intonation maintained despite the tight harmony, was a great aural experience and quite a shift in style from the first number. Joseph M. Martin's profoundly moving arrangement of the great chorale "How Brightly Shines the Morning Star," which concluded the Chorale's first set of numbers, was an excellent example of superb vocalism by a large group of fine choral singers paying strict attention to dynamics, energy, phrasing and the power of music and text. The brass and percussion ensembles offered the brilliant sounds and crisp rhythms which contributed so much to the success of the first and last numbers in this opening set.
The Chorale concluded the first half of the concert with John Rutter's famous Gloria which has the Rutter musical trademarks we recall from many of his compositions: sophisticated harmonies and rhythms, great dynamic and tempo shifts, demanding vocal lines ascending into the stratosphere, and brass, percussion and organ parts as important and demanding for the players as the vocal music is for the chorus. In all three sections of the Gloria, both chorale and instrumentalists worked together, as Rutter intended, to respond to each other's brilliant, exciting musical ideas and rhythms, creating a cohesive, inspiring musical experience that brought an enthusiastic response from the audience. I have never been in or heard a better performance of this difficult music.
To conclude the evening's performance, the chorale offered a set of predominantly familiar pieces. Every number presented had the vocal security, clarion vocal sound in all parts, excitement natural to the music of the season, and, most importantly, no major signs of vocal fatigue. All these numbers were a great pleasure to hear, especially the last four: Sturgis' delightful combination of "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" and "Patapan," highlighted by sudden rhythmic twists; Noel Regney and Gloria Shane's well-loved treatment of "Do You Hear What I Hear?"; David Willcocks' famous arrangement of "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" highlighted by the arranger's extremely difficult soprano descant on the final verse; and Anthony DiLorenzo's thunderous rendition of "Joy to the World." The brass and percussion ensembles, who performed with distinction all evening, were of invaluable assistance in gilding the Chorale's superb singing with the golden sound of instruments played with excellence.
The NCMC Chamber Choir was no less impressive in its performance than the Chorale. This is all the more important to remember in that their first selection, an arrangement of Joseph M. Martin's "Comfort Ye My People," was not a good combination of brass and a relatively small group of singers; the instrumentalists almost entirely covered up the voices. But the Chamber Choir recovered quickly and magnificently in the sweet crystalline beauty of their singing of Tomas Luis de Victoria's Renaissance jewel, "O Magnum Mysterium." The next two, "The Flower of Jesse" and "The Spouse and the Younglings," the two parts of Samuel Gordon's new composition entitled The Flower Motets, are a wonderful admixture of the old and the new. The texts were written in the fifteenth century but were a perfect fit with Gordon's modern harmony; and the Chamber Choir's ability to bring to life the music’s rich palette of dissonances and shifts in dynamics, to make each word come alive, and to maintain perfect intonation made their performance of these carols one of the high moments of the concert. For the last piece in their first set, the Chamber Choir sang the joyous "Neighbor, On This Frosty Tide," by Joan Morris and William Bolcom, with energy and delight, and Susan Lohr's sparkling accompaniment at the piano added to everyone's enjoyment.
Like the Chorale, the Chamber Choir offered some familiar works in its second set, but not before performing three that were new to the audience. The first of these was Philip Laser's beautiful new carol, "Sing Christmas!" filled with the anticipation of this wonderful day. The second, "Dormi Jesu," composed by Conor O'Reilly, is a tender lullaby perfectly sung by Leanne Glasgow, whose excellent lyric soprano voice successfully conveyed the tenderness and the maternal passion of the Christ-Child's mother as she sings him to sleep. In a delightful change of pace, the Chamber Choir next turned to the lighter mood of "Ya Vieni La Vieja" ("Here Comes the Old Lady") depicting first an elderly woman bringing the Baby Jesus a gift and then taking part of it home with her and second the visitation of the Three Kings.
The last two pieces ended the concert on a familiar note. First came the familiar, wistful words and music of "Christmas Time Is Here," by Lee Mendelson and Vince Guaraldi of "A Charlie Brown Christmas" fame. The concert concluded with the Chamber Singers presenting a marvelous spoof of Mozart's "A Little Night Music" renamed "A Little Christmas Music" by its modern arranger, Daryl Runswick. Everyone in the hall had smiles on their faces, including the singers, as the concert ended.