This year's venue for the Greenville Choral Society annual Christmas concert was the First Christian Church's new and spacious building. In spite of being carpeted like your living room, the acoustics are bright and friendly to both instrumental music and singers. The living room carpet was also encouraging to those in the audience who thought the event was homecoming with background music. How they clacked on.
The program followed the almost-obligatory form of important music followed by Christmas carols. The important music was of two kinds: J. S. Bach's Cantata S. 140, for it was (as the program notes point out) the 27th Sunday in Pentecost (a rarely-occurring feast day), and Gerald Finzi's In Terra Pax: Christmas Scene. The chorale is listed as 51 strong, and the modern-instruments New Carolina Sinfonia lists 17 players. Soloists were Shelley Maddox, soprano; Daniel Shirley, tenor; and John Kramar, baritone, all under the leadership of Dwight Dockery, conductor. Dockery, though well known in the area, is new to this podium. His skill was obvious in the smoothness of the well-prepared chorale and the complete compatibility and balance of the orchestra.
Cantata 140, often known by its German first line, "Wachet auf," is most often quoted for its fourth verse, "Zion hears the watchman singing," a chorale prelude form often heard in its organ version. The chorus was loud but smooth, never forced, soaring nicely in all the high places. The first movement is very reminiscent of Bach's motets; the chorale was well up to keeping two different vocal lines going without entanglement. The tempo was slow – well, really, it was plodding, but may have been all that was possible. The tempo was such that nothing fell apart or got confused. Although slow, it was a lovely piece of choral singing.
The second movement is a recitative, here taken beautifully by tenor Daniel Shirley. The third movement, a typically complex interweaving of a soprano aria, a baritone aria, and an obbligato violin line, was a treat. The violin line of Hye-Jin Kim was clear, with minimal vibrato. The soprano sang beautifully in a practically motionless stance. The baritone, John Kramar, was equally beautiful, but his constant bobbing and bouncing were a little distracting.
The well-known fourth movement was rather slow, with the nine tenor voices overwhelmed by the orchestra; tenors are sparse on the ground in eastern North Carolina. The uneven balance was still exemplary in that the tenors did not yell; there was good singing at all times. The fifth movement was another three-part aria, soprano, baritone, and deliciously precise oboe, played by Paige Hults. The grand fifth movement in the form of a fantasia was totally rich because of the chorus' big smooth sound, unforced but in excellent balance.
Finzi's In Terra Pax: Christmas Scene uses poetry by the British Poet Laureate Robert Bridges. It is absolutely characteristic of English orchestral music and offers no jarring forays into unpleasantness. It is inspirational that such a lovely piece of ostensibly Christian music should have come from the pen of an agnostic Jew. Perhaps even now the lion can lie down with the lamb. The most modern element is the piece is the rich use of percussion, played by Chris Nappi.
The Christmas music portion this year was provided by a homogeneous set of carols, Seven Joys of Christmas, Opus 25b, by the American composer Kirke Mechem (b 1925). These seven carols were beautifully prepared by the chorus, notable for a very smooth and professional sound. Number 4, "The Joy Of Children: Patapan," was enriched by rollicking and precise piccolo playing by Justin Collis and percussion again by Chris Nappi.
This first concert of the season was totally delightful, with thanks in no little measure for the good work of conductor Dockery.