The holiday season is an especially crucial time for professional musicians and ensembles, and the North Carolina Master Chorale, along with the Triad-based Carolina Brass,* did not disappoint. The two ensembles put together a program that seamlessly integrated brass quintet texture with the chorale's powerful sound. The Chorale's own 16-voice Chamber Choir made several fabulous appearances as well. Many Christmas favorites were featured, along with several other genres and even a world premiere. As a whole, the concert was a stellar example of synthesis among and between voices and instruments.
The Master Chorale's concert this year was even more special than usual because starting with Christmas 2017 and for the following years, the concert in its entirety will be broadcast on UNC-TV (so if you had to miss the live performance, tune in next year!). Before the concert "officially" began, Master Chorale's director, Alfred E. Sturgis appeared onstage humorously to make a few points on concert etiquette and to "practice" the audience's applause for the cameras. What could have been a very stiff, formal concert, though no less musical, was made all the more interactive and inviting by Sturgis' attitude and expression plus of course the rest of the musicians. Spoken introductions throughout the concert by both Sturgis and Carolina Brass' Tim Hudson made even the oldest motet accessible.
Highlights of this concert were many – the Chamber Choir's lilting motet "Resonet in laudibus," sung together with two trumpets (Tim Hudson and Ashley Hall), was beautifully crystal clear. With this selection as well as Victoria's motet "Ave Maria," 16 voices sounded as one, with incredibly precise diction and consonant cutoffs. Precise dynamic control was the norm for both vocal ensembles – for Ola Gjeilo's "Serenity," which uses the O Magnum Mysterium text, the Chorale executed deep, pulsing chords that were absolutely spellbinding. Here, the horn was the first to introduce the serene, lyrical melody, played by Robert Campbell. In the resonant hall that is Meymandi, the effect was wonderful.
As well as playing in most of the Master Chorale's selections, the Carolina Brass also performed a few sets of their own. The arrangements of Christmas tunes were never boring or tired and always unique: "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" (arranged by Rob Roy McGregor) was swiftly moving, deftly swapping the melody among the five instrumentalists. Their rendition of "Jingle Bells," arranged by Jack Gale, began with an upbeat and jazzy texture, with surprising switches to a slower swing tempo. When the Carolina Brass played with the Chorale, the result was an incredibly full sound.
The second half of the concert featured slightly more modern Christmas selections, including the Chamber Choir's vocal jazz-like stylings that were no less balanced than the previous motets. The Chorale performed the world premiere of Brian Pappal's* heartwarming "Dream as an Innocent Child," which tells a story of childlike wonderment both musically and textually. In other words, the elements of Pappal's music exactly communicate his text – from gentle, twinkling piano chords to introduce the word "lux" at the beginning to dark, somber chords with the words "discord and shadow." The result is a convincing story and beautiful music.
To bring the concert to a close, the audience was invited to participate in the penultimate song, Dan Forrest's arrangement of "Festival First Nowell." This was a great arrangement for the musicians involved – the Carolina Brass' fanfare chords began the song and also filled in between verses. For a thundering rendition of "Joy to the World," the texture switched back and forth between the full chorus and members of the Chamber Choir on either side, which was a nice twist. With the final chord, all ensembles and musicians onstage personified the "Joy of the Season" – for this season, and on television for years to come.
**The composer is on the staff of Saint Andrews Presbyterian Church in Raleigh