Choral Music, Holiday Concert Review



Short and Sweet: A Britten Christmas at Elon University

December 3, 2002 - Elon, NC:


Nothing fills an auditorium like a choral concert. That rule held true for the December 3 program of the Elon University Camerata, given in Whitley Auditorium. Membership in the chamber choir is by annual audition. It is directed by Stephen A. Futrell, and several pieces allowed able accompanist Sharon LaRocco to shine as she played extended preludes during the short carol portion of the program that ended the concert. The use of the restored 1923D Steinway, with its rich variety of color and tone, brought these to a whole higher level of sound quality.

The centerpiece of the program was the Ceremony of Carols , Op. 28, by Benjamin Britten. In 1939, he and his companion Peter Pears had come to America; they were stranded here by the outbreak of WWII. In March 1942, they were finally able to book berths on the Swedish cargo vessel Axel Johnson . During a layover in Halifax, Nova Scotia, the composer found a book of medieval English poems, The English Galaxy of Shorter Poems . This was the source of most of the text used in Op. 28, which was composed during the nearly month-long journey to England as part of a large convoy. The constant threat of attack from Nazi submarine wolf packs must have been grueling.

Humphrey Carpenter, writing in Benjamin Britten , reports that early sketches reveal Britten's "original intention was to use women's voices... [but] the published score specifies that (it) is to be sung by trebles (-) boys" with an elaborate harp accompaniment. The Elon Camerata used an alternative version for a standard SATB choir that takes some liberties with the presentation. Immediately noticeable was the use of a single soprano to intone the opening plainchant from the front left of balcony as the choir silently approached the stage holding electric candles. This antiphon for vespers on Christmas day was firmly and steadily sung by Ashley Abraham. The otherwise excellent program notes did not provide texts for the carols used in the Britten or those selected to end the program, but the choir's enunciation was so clear that even the medieval carols could be understood. While the male voices were good, the sound quality of the women's voices were well above average; all seemed to be very well supported throughout their range. The solo portions, all well done, featured soprano Robin Beers in "That yongë Childe," soprano Kristen Robeson in "Balulalow," and baritone Jason Joyner in the chilling " In Freezing Winter Night." The higher and lower registers of Julie Ressler and Amy Acevedo provided fine contrasts in color and timbre in the "Spring Carol." A number of the carols featured the luminescent harp playing of Sally Duran, and she gave a virtuoso reading of the famous Interlude. This shimmering score is all that remains from the composer's plan to create a harp concerto.

The concert ended with a group of six short seasonal carols that began and ended with two arrangements by John Rutter, "The Holly and the Ivy" and "We Wish you a Merry Christmas." More complex and intriguing was Rutter's own "Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind," which opened with an extended piano solo before featuring the clear high soprano of Christine Piché. A wordless melody by the women's voices backed the text sung by the men. An unidentified soprano had a brief solo. Alf Houkom's "The Rune of Hospitality" seemed to skirt atonality. A Kenneth Leighton arrangement of "Wassail All Over the Town," sung a cappella, featured complex interplay between groupings within the choir. The Wihla Hutson/Alfred Burt version of "Caroling, Caroling" suggested the sounds of Christmas bells.