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Tucked away in a quiet suburb off of Raleigh’s Wade Avenue, St. Michael’s Episcopal Church was a lovely, peaceful venue for Singer’s Circle to present its holiday concert, featuring guest artist Philip van Lidth de Jeude, with accompanists Nancy Neubauer and Renee McBride, organist Kevin Kerstetter, and trumpet player Rob Probst. The program featured a wide variety of vocal styles, from traditional holiday classics like George Frederic Handel oratorio movements, to Irving Berlin jazz, folk songs, and spirituals.
Singer’s Circle is a group founded in 2009 by Monifa Harris for the purpose of allowing independent vocalists to gather, perform for each other in a safe place, address the challenges that freelance singers face, and have an opportunity to nurture each other’s developing talents. This concert showcased the immense talent of this nineteen-piece ensemble in solos, duets, trios, and full ensemble works and even allowed for some audience participation.
Guest tenor Philip van Lidth de Jeude has sung throughout the German-speaking parts of Europe and the Netherlands, singing such roles as Otello (Otello), Peter Grimes (Peter Grimes), Samson (Samson et Delila), and Don Jose (Carmen). He sang some of his own arrangements at this concert, including Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” Gloria Shayne’s “Do You Hear What I Hear?”, and two Dutch Christmas carols which he also translated. He sang with such power that his voice echoed throughout the entire sanctuary. He was particularly striking during the carols sung by the full ensemble, such as “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear,” and “Hark, The Herald Angels Sing,” adding extra layers of full-bodied harmony to the ensemble.
Singer’s Circle members were also quite talented, and it shocked me that I had not heard of this ensemble before! From ensemble works and canons like “Jubilate Deo,” “Lo How A Rose E’er Blooming,” “Little Drummer Boy,” and “The Holly and the Ivy,” small ensembles were balanced with a very harmonious sound and enough talent to take some parts a cappella and maintain the same energy as they did with accompaniment.
Soloists were particularly impressive, with a variety of voice types represented. The coloratura soprano mastery of Summer Kinnard shone through in a duet with van Lidth of “Panis Angelicus,” a lovely, soaring descant feature in “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” and “O Holy Night,” which she sang as a powerful, virtuosic solo. Mezzo-soprano Monifa Harris also showed her talents with solos in “O Come All Ye Faithful” and the heart-wrenching spiritual “Mary Had A Baby.” Marie Miller and Miranda Capra also gave lovely solos during “Coventry Carol,” “Jesus, Jesus Rest Your Head,” and “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.” Jenna Badalian worked together with trumpet player Rob Probst and organist Kevin Kerstetter to present an uplifting “Let the Bright Seraphim,” a movement from Handel’s Samson, sounding like an equal dialogue between all the players and capturing the true Baroque style.
The Singer’s Circle men, however, almost stole the show. Tom Link was charming in his conversational and personable renditions of “Christmas Song” and the highly emotional “Away in a Manger,” which featured a sensitive, minor adaptation of one verse in the middle. Gary Gundacker was obviously a crowd favorite, judging from the comments I heard about him during intermission; his performances in “Sweet Little Jesus Boy” and his duet with van Lidth in “White Christmas” showed off his disarmingly sultry bass voice. These two men joined with Tony Olvio in a highly effective rendition of “We Three Kings,” taking on one verse each to represent one of the kings and then joining with the rest of the ensemble.
Some audience participation was encouraged; van Lidth promoted the audience singing along during his arrangement of “White Christmas,” helping us all to remember the feeling of family during the holiday season. The final work of the evening was the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah. The audience was provided with copies of the score and asked to stand and sing along as we wished. This provided a traditional, classic touch and a very exciting conclusion to the concert. Luckily, Singer’s Circle has enough talent to make up for those in the audience like myself who are not professional singers! The overall effect was spectacular and left everyone feeling invigorated and ready to go out and spread holiday cheer.