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The Choral Society of Durham's annual Christmas concert was presented Saturday evening, December 10 and repeated Sunday afternoon in Duke Chapel. At the Saturday night performance, the venue was nearly full, and the Choral Society absolutely filled the chapel with glorious sounds.
The first part of the program consisted of English Carols, some familiar, some new to most ears, all beautifully sung. Four were sung with organ accompaniment provided by rehearsal accompanist and all-around superb musician Jane Lynch, playing the Flentrop organ. The others were done a cappella, with outstanding pitch and intonation.
The opening selection, "Sir Christmas," was sung from memory. It was quite a sight to see all 165 singers, heads up, eyes on the conductor, singing with enthusiasm and gusto. I don't know how Music Director Rodney Wynkoop bribed them to do it. It is not easy for busy teachers, technicians, physicians, housewives, etc., to invest the time it takes to commit words and notes to memory, but it surely paid off with this glorious opener. Herbert Howells' "A Spotless rose" was, as always, harmonically delicious and lyrically satisfying. A new setting of Christina Rossetti's poem "In the bleak mid winter" by William Llewellyn was gorgeous. The women of the chorus sang "Sweet was the song" by Benjamin Britten, and the men sang the traditional "Coventry Carol" arranged by Norman Gilbert. The sound was rich and sumptuous. The chorus then sang a different version of the same carol composed by Kenneth Leighton. It featured soprano Kristen Blackman, who has a voice to melt the most unruly demons in us all and lure the angels close to earth. Other carols by some of England's best – Stephen Cleobury, John Rutter, David Willcocks, William Walton, and John Joubert (actually born in South Africa) – fleshed out the rest of the first half of the concert. Soloists from the Choral Society – John Foust, Rachel Blunk, Eric Campbell, and Elissa Jones – demonstrated the quality of voices this chorus attracts.
The second half of the concert was Britten's cantata, Saint Nicholas, first performed in 1948, some three years after Peter Grimes and about seventeen years before his masterpiece, the War Requiem. It is a challenging work, demanding considerable resources. One of Wynkoop's ingenious traits is his ability to choose and attract the most skilled and suitable soloists and accompanists for the works he programs. In this instance, James Doing, a widely experienced and highly regarded concert and opera tenor, sang the role of Nicholas. Scott Hill, a member of the Choral Society for many years and recently retired Choral Director at Durham School of the Arts, prepared the Durham Children's Choir, already one of the finest children's choirs around. The children from the choir on Saturday night – Andrew McCrae (Nicholas as a boy) and Spencer Terry, Jacob Wells, and Alex Helbig as Three Boys Nicholas is credited with restoring to life – sang excellently. Lynch played the Flentrop organ and Vangie Poe, the children's choir accompanist, played the Aeolian organ. Even the audience played a part in this cantata, singing the doxology and the hymn "God Moves in a Mysterious Way." The orchestra was made up of outstanding local musicians, including pianists David Heid and Kent Lyman.
Saint Nicholas is a dramatic and impressive retelling of highlights from the life of the 4th-century Bishop of Myra (in what is now Turkey). The genius of Britten captures Nicholas' generosity (possibly a seed for the tradition of Santa Claus), his devotion to God, his elevation to bishop, his persecution, calming a vicious storm at sea, bringing three young boys back to life in a time of famine, and finally, his death. It is a marvelous and uplifting adventure, and it was a pleasure to participate in it.
This was not only a stunning concert, but it was also surrounded by glorious music. The Durham Children's Choir, led by Hill and accompanied by Poe and guitarist Randy Tobias, sang several selections before the concert. They are impressive. And to leave such an event in Duke Chapel hearing Carilloneur Samuel Hammond playing familiar carols just lifts your feet off the ground.
Wynkoop has been invited by Mid-America Productions to conduct a concert in Carnegie Hall in May 2006. Singers from the Choral Society, Duke Chapel Choir, and the Duke Chorale will perform Vaughan Williams' Dona Nobis Pacem, which the Choral Society rendered so stunningly last season here. It is fitting that the Triangle should share some of the great joy Wynkoop has provided for us with the Big Apple. And, by the way, how do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, yes – and excellence!