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One would be hard-pressed to find any fault with the splendid program of seasonal music presented by the East Carolina University Chamber Singers and Collegiate Choir. The Chamber Singers, under the direction of Andrew Crane, are a well known ensemble; the Collegiate Choir is relatively new, combining some members of the Chamber Singers with others in the School of Music, under the direction of Erin Plisco and Kimberly Ness. Before a standing-room-only audience at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, the two groups gave wonderful performances of music both familiar and not-so-familiar.
Diction, timing, dynamics, choral blend and the little things such as entrances and cutoffs all were handled with great skill and precision. Tricky rhythms and moving lines presented no problems. Although they undoubtedly put many hours into preparation, the singers seemed to approach all the music with joy and enthusiasm. Whether singing a cappella or accompanied by organist Andrew Scanlon, the students (and one should remember that these are students, not professionals) showed why the ECU choral music program is held in such high regard.
The Collegiate Choir sang six well-known carols to open the program, from the haunting "O Magnum Mysterium" by Tomás Luis de Victoria to John Gardner's jaunty setting for "Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day." Under Kimberly Ness' flowing, graceful direction, the ensemble captured the beauty of Michael Praetorius' "Est is ein Ros entsprungen" ("Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming") and the sparkle of Ralph Vaughan Williams' setting for "Wassail Song." The "Wassail Song" featured nice successions of voice parts, with tenor voices leading on the melody in the first verse, the women in the second verse, all men in the third and fourth verses, and all voices in the fifth verse, with the sopranos handling a beautiful soaring line. The tenors closed in lovely soft unison on the final verse.
Under Erin Plisco's equally excellent direction, the choir ventured into trickier composition and delivered fine readings of Benjamin Britten's "Jubilate Deo," Herbert Howells' "A Spotless Rose," and Gardner's "Dancing Day." Britten's composition has not only tricky rhythms but also unusual chords, while Howell's composition, as pretty as it is, mixes unusual rhythms with unusual pairing of chords and syllables of the text. Baritone John Kramar added his rich voice to a verse in "A Spotless Rose."
Plisco directed both ensembles in Gustav Holst's wonderful "Christmas Day," which is less well known than, say, Britten's A Ceremony of Carols, but is nevertheless a brilliant blend of well-known English carols. Instead of antiphonal choirs sharing the score, three soloists added considerable contrast by introducing the carols early in the music: mezzo-soprano Jami Rhodes opened with "Good Christian Men, Rejoice," Kramar sang "God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen," and Crane, singing tenor, helped introduce "Come Ye Lofty, Come Ye Lowly." The blend of all voices on "The First Nowell," which served as counterpoint during the middle of the piece, was quite lovely. While the overall tempo was a bit slower than one might be used to, the overall effect generated "oohs" and "ahhs" aplenty.
The Chamber Singers' portion of the program was an interesting mixture of less-well-known music, although Sir Malcolm Sargent's arrangement (and rewriting) of "Silent Night," notable for omitting the familiar first verse, was stunning. Ranging from a 17th century peasant song (a villancico) sung in Portuguese, Spanish, and an African dialect to more contemporary songs by Stephen Paulus (who passed away in October) and John Rutter, the set showed off all the strengths of this award-winning group of approximately 40 singers. Rutter's "Dormi, Jesu" was especially lovely, as was Michelle Hynson's arrangement of "On High," which combined "Ding Dong Merrily on High" with "Angels We Have Heard on High," and the rousing "See Dat Babe," arranged by Stacey Gibbs, offered great contrast to the sweeter seasonal music elsewhere in the program. Crane frequently played up shifts in dynamics, with softer and louder passages nicely juxtaposed, and crescendos offering thrilling endings.
In all, a first-rate performance by well-trained, highly skilled young singers.