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College and university holiday choral concerts – especially those at non-music-degree-granting schools – tend to be somewhat formulaic. The men sing. The women sing. If there are more men than women, the women sing first. The mixed chorus sings. Then everybody musters onstage for the grand finale. This is a more-than-OK way to pull together a holiday program for which no one ensemble has a huge amount to do – a very good thing if the various choirs have already done programs on their own during the fall term.
So the concert given in the sanctuary of Holy Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church by three NCSU choirs – The Singing Statesmen, Vox Accalia, and the NC State Chorale, all described here, and all directed by Nathan Leaf and all accompanied by pianist John Noel – might have been a typically routine affair. It was the overall excellence of the singing, the outstanding support from Noel, and Leaf's leadership that elevated the evening above the norm. And the music, in all cases noteworthy, sometimes soared to the realm of the exceptional.
The Statesmen – no political pun intended – began with one of the great classics of the 20th century, Randall Thompson's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," No. 6 of Frostiana, the magnificent collection based on poems by Robert Frost. Many high school and college singers, past and present, know this music. It made for an awesome opening for this first group, which also included three chestnuts: Mel Tormé's "The Christmas Song," Karl Dent's "Gloria in Excelsis Deo," and "We Need a Little Christmas" (from Jerry Herman's Mame) as arranged by Mark Hayes.
The ladies were next; Vox Accalia, at 34 members about twice the strength of The Statesmen, launched this group with "Deo Gracias," from The Ceremony of Carols, in this, composer Benjamin Britten's 100th birthday year. It looks so simple, on the page, but it's hard to do well. This ensemble mastered it and then did comparably well with John Rutter's "Candlelight Carol" and a version of Leroy Anderson's "Sleigh Ride."
The mixed voices of the NC State Chorale began with substantial fare, too, giving a wonderful performance of Tomás Luis de Victoria's well-known – ubiquitous, really – "O Magnum Mysterium" before turning to William Mathias' "Sir Christmas" and arrangements of Irving Berlin's "White Christmas" and James Lord Pierpont's "Jingle Bells."
Between these groups were two sing-along opportunities for the near-capacity audience, "Deck the Hall" and "O Christmas Tree"; these permited all who were present to claim they have sung under the leadership of the Director of Choral Activities at NCSU!
There could have been a little more piano during the sing-alongs, but elsewhere John Noel was magnificent in his supporting role with those occasional spots in the sun; every time we hear this artist, we are more impressed. The leadership was consistently strong, too. We are fortunate to have a young conductor of Leaf's caliber in our midst; readers will remember a recent review of his work with the Raleigh Civic Symphony. The singing was good, too, although here and there one might have wished for crisper diction and less strident tone, especially from the sopranos. There were a few spots where a combination of youth and the Southern background (of some of the choristers) expanded single vowels into multiples, the most noticeable being "'Away-eee' in a Manger."
But it's Christmas, as someone said. And to underscore that fact, the concert ended with a glowing reading of the second part (of four) of The Many Moods of Christmas, one of the happiest and most sophisticated collections of carols and songs in the repertory. The arrangements are by Robert Shaw and Robert Russell Bennett. This part encompasses "O Sanctissima," "Joy to the World," "Away in a Manger," "Fum, Fum, Fum," and "March of the Kings." It made for a fine ending of a tightly-organized program.