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Despite the fact that its regular rehearsal space is St. James Episcopal Church in Hendersonville, the Carolina Concert Choir has wisely chosen to adopt the Porter Center as the most frequent location for its concerts. The hall acoustics are excellent, the stage can accommodate the chorus and orchestra, and the usual turnout of 500 patrons are seated comfortably without crowding the 700-seat capacity.
This year’s Christmas seasonal concert, at 3:00 p.m. Saturday, was for the most part a thoroughly traditional recital. Bach’s “Juchzet, frohlocket” (from the Christmas Oratorio), de Victoria’s “O Magnum Mysterium” and Vivaldi’s Gloria (RV 589) brought us to intermission. The second half was dominated by carols arranged by John Rutter. Interspersed were Verdi’s “Ave Maria”, Handel’s “And the Glory of the Lord” and Bach’s “Dona nobis pacem.” The only break with traditional Anglican fare were two pieces, Russian composer Aleksandr Kopylow’s “Heavenly Light” and local composer Kenton Coe’s “A Quiet Alleluia.”
In the six years since Bradford Gee became Artistic Director, he has exercised thoughtful planning of repertoire, activities and size. What used to be a very good 30-voice chamber choir has become an excellent choir of 50 plus voices. Support of choral activities at the Blue Ridge Community College has added a few young voices (two for this concert) to supplement the middle-aged and retirement-aged majority. Annual auditions for all choir members has given the director the luxury of selecting voices for balance and blend. In addition, Maestro Gee has by now identified the specific instrumentalists who best work in the accompanying 28-piece chamber orchestra.
The conduct of the choristers approaches a choral director’s dream. They hold their music high, maintain good eye contact with the director, and listen carefully to the group blending. The choir was technically close to flawless.
The three soloists for the Vivaldi Gloria were mezzo-soprano Kristen Walter and sopranos Amanda Horton and Amanda Gardner Porter. All three showed an understanding of baroque vibrato technique, and the sopranos were pleasing in their solos and duets. Ms. Walter was more than pleasing; she was exemplary. In the “Qui tollis peccata mundi” her fruity tone meshed perfectly with Eric Scheider’s soulful cello obligato.
Scheider, who counts early music as one of his specialties, was also outstanding in his continuo playing. Speaking of continuo players, double bass player Martin Houghtaling seemed to thoroughly enjoy playing continuo in the opening Bach selection. And well he should. Not only did he provide a fully effective and convincing bass line, but also he was the only audible part of the continuo. Twenty-eight instruments, including three piccolo trumpets, were shouting out the joy of Bach’s “Juchzet, frohlocket.” Against those forces, the harpsichord was totally inaudible. Eventually, I hope, even “original instrument” purists will realize that a harpsichord is designed for someone’s living room, not a concert hall. J.S. Bach himself reveled in the early fortepiano, using it instead of harpsichord in performances of keyboard concerti late in his life. Surely when ten wind instruments are playing fortissimo, a pianoforte might be the better choice for continuo?
There were occasional small faults. In the “Coventry Carol,” the bass section had some uncertainty about one passage. But each time when I thought I was about to hear a glitch, the individual straying voice took corrective action so promptly that I could not even diagnose the problem. These choristers are good musicians.
My only regret is that this choir’s repertoire lacks adventure. Where are works from choral traditions other than Germany, Italy and England? How about eighteenth century Ukrainian masters Maxim Berezovsky and Dmitri Bortnyansky? How about contemporary Estonian composer Arvo Pärt? Is the Carolina Concert Choir up to tackling Hector Berlioz’s “L’Enfance du Christ”? I think that they just might be. They are that good.