Tradition. Honored and upheld by Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. Bemoaned by Toscanini as "The last bad performance." But over at Duke, celebrated as the Great Gothic Rockpile, tradition lives – especially in music.
In no month is tradition stronger there than in December. The university's readings of Handel's Messiah continue December 4-6. And the annual Christmas concerts given by the justly-celebrated Duke Chorale are strong components of that proud tradition.
This year's edition was presented in Baldwin Auditorium because Duke Chapel is currently undergoing renovations. The East Campus venue is lovely in every respect, allowing the ensemble of around 40 singers to be heard to particularly good advantage. Director Rodney Wynkoop, long recognized as one of the region's superior choral masters, conducted. The accomplished accompanist was pianist Kisun Lee.
The relatively short program encompassed a wide range of fine choral music of the season, starting with sacred fare and ending with contemporary secular items. The evening brought 16th century music from the Genevan Psalter (1551) – a reverent setting of "Comfort, Comfort Ye My People" that predates Handel's well-known version – plus the "Coventry Carol," and Victoria's "O magnum mysterium." Handel's famous setting of "Joy to the World" was heard, with audience participation. Favorites such as "O Holy Night," "Hark the Herald Angels Sing," and "Silent Night" enriched the journey. "New" arrangements – new to this listener – included David Ashley White's "Star in the East" (with bells and piano) and Matthew Culloton's version of W.J. Kilpatrick's "Away in a Manger." John Rutter's contemporary classic, the "Candlelight Carol," was heard. A reading from the Gospel of Luke suggested the long tradition of evenings devoted to lessons and carols.
A collection of food to benefit Urban Ministries of Durham took place during the concert, resulting in many boxes filled with canned goods.
The second part of the evening brought lighter music including "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," "The Carol of the Bells," "Sleigh Ride," and "We Wish You a Merry Christmas." The 20-voice Chamber Choir essayed Pentatonix's "That's Christmas to Me." Along the way there were more things for the audience to sing, allowing another roomful of folks to state they've performed under the leadership of Maestro Wynkoop.
Santa made an appearance, and there was an excellent reading of "The Polar Express" for children gathered on the stage, capped by gifts of little Christmas bells on ribbons.
The singing, overall, was very fine, with high levels of energy during the Chorale's many selections, good balance (despite the 2:1 advantage of women to men), exemplary blend and diction, and solid intonation. However, on more than one occasion, the sopranos were overly strident and bright, reminding us of the choir’s youthful voices. And, as in most choral groups, more eye contact with the conductor would surely have been beneficial. All that said, the Duke Chorale is one of the university's gems, and its traditions are especially comforting during the holiday season.
There are admirable descants for several of the hymns that were sung; the inclusion of these enhancements would spruce up future Christmas concerts by the Chorale.
The first Sunday in Advent was earlier this week. The season has begun. Thanks to the Duke Chorale for this gentle musical prompt to get on with it.
For details of those upcoming Messiah performances, being offered in Page Auditorium this year, click here.