The Winter Concert of the Greenville Choral Society, under the direction of Jeffrey Ward, was in the ample space of St. Paul’s Church (Episcopal).
The twelve-member Chamber Chorale performed five standard Christmas carols, beginning with “Break Forth, O Beauteous Heavenly Light,” from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. The diction was splendid! My only complaint, standard with this specific unaccompanied four-part chorale, is that it’s not long enough; I wanted to hear more of this choir singing this music.
“O Little One Sweet” in an arrangement by Bach continued the Chorale’s magnificent start. “Hark, the Herald Angels,” arranged by W. H. Cummings, and “O Come All Ye Faithful,” arr. David Willcocks were both audience sing-along and were well received. For a finale the Chorale sang “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” in a complex and very effective arrangement by Arthur Warrell.
The fifty-three member Concert Choir then took the risers for a concert of the very highest standard. In addition to their precise rhythmic cohesion, their accurate intonation, and their successful blend of sound, the diction of the Concert Choir, clear as gin, was the finest I have ever heard. Conductor Jeffrey Ward is to be commended for his work bringing the Concert Choir to this high level.
A long-drawn-out slow “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” demonstrated the superior effect of having enough basses and tenors, instead of having a few basses and tenors who are obliged to yell through a whole concert. Sweelinck’s “Hodie Christus natus est” filled the building with great floods of beautiful sound. Just for a few moments near the end, the choir was pushed beyond what was possible. Tomas Luis de Victoria’s “O Magnum Mysterium” began with delicate crystalline sweetness and progressed to a conclusion of majestic power. The singers were so rhythmically precise that it sounded as if only one person were singing. The very slow tempo was assisted by the large resources being used.
The Gloria of G. B. Pergolesi required accompaniment, provided by organist Andrew Scanlon.
Although it was difficult to understand exactly what Ward’s rhythmic intentions were in Karl Gottfried Löwe’s “O Most Gracious, Welcome Child,” this is a truly remarkable sound, whether amateur or professional.
“Run, Ye Shepherds, To The Light” combines the music of Michael Haydn (1737-1807) with a text by Elwood Johnson (b. 1945). This choir could sing the telephone directory to Haydn’s score and make grand music!
Mendelssohn’s “There Shall A Star Come Out Of Jacob” was magnificent; Andrew Scanlon’s organ accompaniment was sensitive even in the big places. The entry of the “Morgenstern” theme was especially compelling.
Conductor Ward made skillful use of interpretation to individualize each of the three stanzas of Berlioz’s “Shepherds’ Farewell” (from L’Enfance du Christ). The organ interlude, in my opinion perhaps the most fatuous interlude in the history of music, was neatly executed by Scanlon.
Gustav Holst’s “Christmas Day” is the quintessential early-20th-century statement of hope for the English middle class, with God in his heaven and all right in the world, upstairs, anyway. The music was well up to tempo, with the most amazing diction for any choir, especially one of this size.
We were treated to a second "O Magnum," this time by the American Morten Lauridsen (b. 1943). The entire piece seemed infused with personal spirituality, both of the composer and the performers.
The concert concluded with “Joy To The World.” At a seemingly perfect place to use the usual Antioch tune and ask the audience to sing along, Ward wisely chose a very slow, stately arrangement by Frank Kuykendall. After a pompous organ introduction, the choir sang mostly a cappella with splendid pure suspensions and a strongly transparent sound.
This chorus brings together all sorts and conditions of men and women who like to sing: those who speak with the accents of the duck blind and the deer stand, the art studio and the choir loft, the office worker and the young mother to produce a wonderful, pure cohesive sound, worthy of any professional chorus. There was a skillful selection of compositions and much good work in rehearsal, yielding a truly excellent program.