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For some in the audience, the rousing finale of the annual East Carolina University Choral Holiday Concert, Mack Willberg’s arrangement of “O Come All Ye Faithful,” signified the exciting start to the holiday season, as well as showing just how good and professional sounding the young singers in ECU’s choral music program are. A boldly familiar carol with no oversinging, no overly dramatic presentation, just top quality voices in a great ensemble sound.
But for others, the smaller moments in the program brought out the true beauty of the season’s music, as well as showing the strength of the singing by these young people and the instruction they are receiving. One such moment was the perfectly lovely, and perfectly performed, “Little Star of Bethlehem,” also called “A Christmas Carol,” by American composer Charles Ives. This is Ives at his simplest, a gently rocking piece without musical jokes or eccentricities, and the ECU Chamber Singers handled both the lightness and darkness of the text and melody with great skill.
The Ives piece was one of several highlights of this concert at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, which featured both the Chamber Singers, directed by Dr. Andrew Crane, and the St. Cecilia Singers, directed by Dr. Jeffrey Ward. The former group is the select ensemble of the 30-plus best singers in the program; the latter is a select ensemble of 25-plus younger women, nearly all freshmen and sophomores and most of whom are music majors. Andrew Scanlon, St. Paul’s organist, provided accompaniment to several selections by both ensembles.
The St. Cecilia Singers offered a varied program ranging from the 16th century to modern times. One of the most pleasing — and surprising — selections opened the program, “Cançó a la Verge,” by famous cellist Pablo Casals, which contrasted a unison refrain with more subtle verses in parts. Orlando di Lassus’ “Hodie apparuit in Israel” is a brief piece sung in three parts in which the music cascades forth, while Zoltán Kodály’s “Christmas Dance of the Shepherds” is a lively, rhythmic, swirling piece sung in canon-like fashion. Mike Arny provided nice flute accompaniment.
A contemporary setting of “Ave Maria” by Ellen Keating received a beautiful a cappella reading, from the opening chant-like section through the softly flowing melody lines, while “Jesu, dulcis memoria,” by Michael Cleveland, drew out a more piercing sound, especially from sopranos in their highest register. A nice contrast, however, came from the alto section, especially in the “sit nostra in te gloria” line.
The Chamber Singers also offered a varied program of Renaissance to modern music, weighted heavily toward more contemporary settings of seasonal selections. “Lullaby, My Sweet Little Baby” by William Byrd and “Hodie Christus Natus Est” by Giovanni Gabrieli represented music from an earlier time, and both were handled with great skill, especially in the shifting entrances and moving lines. The sopranos soared in the Byrd piece, which had more of a somber minor-key sound than a joyful major-key sound. The Gabrieli piece was sung with a double choir, with a sound that resembled some of his scoring for brass ensembles, and the closing “Gloria” bounced along quite nicely.
Graduate student Christopher Smith led the singers in Paul Mealor’s setting for “Ubi Caritas,” which was composed for the royal wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton. Performed by the Tenebrae Choir at Duke Chapel in early November; the piece as sung by the college singers in Greenville left little to be desired. Dense chord clusters rang through St. Paul’s, and the lowest D-flat from the bass section provided considerable richness and fullness. At the other end of the choral spectrum was “Laetentur Coeli” by William Mathias, a boisterous piece with a somewhat jerky rhythm.
The singers also performed “The Virgin Mary Had a Baby Boy” from the Caribbean and this lively piece with fine harmonies and pulsing rhythm was a crowd-pleaser. The Willberg setting for “Adeste Fidelis” started with the young men singing in unison and opened into a full-blown multi-part choral piece that soared thrillingly into the friendly acoustic of St. Paul’s space.
The ECU holiday choral program has become quite a tradition, perhaps Greenville’s equivalent of the St. Olaf College choral program in Minnesota. The singers in the choirs don’t number in the hundreds at ECU as they do at St. Olaf, but the quality of the singing, especially by the ECU Chamber Singers, is of the highest quality.