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It was perhaps a seasonal miracle in its own right that the Concert Singers of Cary's holiday concert was able to take place when scheduled on Saturday, December 7, albeit in a different venue, after the disastrous ice storm. (This reviewer also recalls experiencing the famous "ice storm of the century" in upstate NY in 1964.) Turnout was consequently light at 8:00 p.m. in Jones Auditorium on the Meredith campus.
Admittedly not an attendee of holiday concerts, which are inevitably repetitive from year to year, I was drawn to the programming for this one, entitled "¡Feliz Navidad!," ostensibly focusing on music of the Spanish-speaking world, and featuring Ariel Ramirez' Navidad Nuestra (with which I was familiar from the spirited recording by Los Calchakis acquired in the early 70's when I was living in France) and Conrad Susa's delightful Carols and Lullabies: Christmas in the Southwest , neither of which works I had ever heard performed live. Consequently, I looked forward to the performance eagerly, glad that it was not canceled or postponed.
It opened with a rendering in English, with guitar and flute accompaniment, of the Brazilian lullaby "Canção de Ninar," curious since Portuguese is the language spoken there. There followed two a capella settings of "O Magnum Mysterium," in Latin, of course, one by the Spanish Tomás Luis de Victoria, who spent the bulk of his career in Rome, and the other by the contemporary Venezuelan César Alejandro Carillo. This made an interesting pairing, although the contrast was not as great as one might have expected. Then came a traditional Spanish song, "Ya viene la vieja" in an a capella Alice Parker/Robert Shaw arrangement. There was, alas, not much Hispanic flavor to these short appetizers leading up to the Ramirez, although the performances were lovely.
The Ramirez is a six-section musical tableau of the events of the nativity with accompaniment for this performance on piano, guitar, and various percussion instruments, some traditional and others orchestral. The scenes are the Annunciation, Pilgrimage, Birth, Shepherds, Three Kings, and Flight into Egypt. The music uses Argentinean folk dance rhythms and quotes traditional melodies. Unfortunately, the performance was rather lackluster. It was too formal and stiff, the tempi were too slow and rhythms not quite right, and some of the solo work was weak and lacking in the folk idiom flavor and general exuberance that characterize the majority of the work.
After intermission, whose necessity was questioned by many in the audience in view of the brevity of the entire program, the chorus gave a good performance of Susa's ten-part assemblage of Christmas songs from all over the (generally) Hispanic world with guitar, harp, marimba and xylophone accompaniment. Curiously, it includes two Catalonian (or Catalan) carols - that's a different language and culture, with the territory, like that of the Basques, split politically between Spain and France in a roughly 2/3-1/3 ratio, and as with the Basques, there has been general contentment on the French side of the Pyrenees and lack thereof on the Spanish side over the centuries since independent status was lost. Tempi and rhythms were better, as was the solo work and the accompaniment. The final scheduled work was Robert DeCormier's arrangement of the English-speaking Caribbean Islands' "The Virgin Mary Had a Baby Boy," which received the finest performance of the evening. The group then offered the 16th century Spanish "Riu, Riu Chiu" as an encore and sang "Peace, Peace," its customary final number, with the audience being invited to join in the second chorus.
The printed program was thorough and informative, if a bit strangely ordered with the Program Notes, director and accompanist bios, and season info appearing before the Program itself, presumably to allow placement of the latter, together with the list of choristers, in the centerfold. Texts and translations were included in the second half, although the heading said simply "Translations." Guest artists were merely listed. The organization is to be congratulated for the amount of corporate support it has generated, as evidenced by the ads that filled 16 1/3 pages.
Perhaps if director Lawrence J. Speakman had made the decision to forsake formal concert attire for the chorus members and encouraged dress with an Hispanic appearance, the singers would have been better able to relax, to get into the spirit of the music, and sing with more Hispanic flair to authenticate the generally fine diction. He might also take care in the future to supplement, rather than repeat, the content of the program notes in his oral comments. Overall, the concert was, unfortunately in view of the circumstances and the effort obviously put forth both to prepare and to present the program, a disappointment. I do not think that my expectation was too high.