A standing room-only audience filled St. Paul's Episcopal Church for what has become a Greenville tradition about this time of year: music for the Christmas season performed by choral ensembles from the East Carolina University School of Music. The 2015 edition of the program, titled "Sounds of the Season," was the first under the new interim director of choral activities, Dr. James Franklin. Franklin joined the ECU program at the start of the school year from a position as director of choral studies at Sam Houston State University in Texas. In addition to teaching, Franklin's primary responsibilities include leading the ECU Chamber Singers, the international award-winning ensemble that presented one-third of this early December concert.
And what a wide-ranging program it was – from St. Ambrose to Elvis Presley, and lots in between and later as well!
The ECU Men's Choir opened the program with "Veni Redemptor Gentium," by St. Ambrose of the fourth century. This was delivered mainly as a unison chant, with particularly good diction of the Latin text. Graduate conducting associate David Mosely led the ensemble in one of the set's highlights – Vera Kistler's version of "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," the Robert Frost poem, accompanied by St. Paul's organist Andrew Scanlon.
One of the most exciting pieces of the entire program was "Betelehemu," a Nigerian Christmas song credited to Via Olatunji and arranged by Wendell Whalum of Morehouse College. Accompanied by two drummers, the nearly 30 singers in the men's ensemble delivered the piece with great energy and skill, in both unison sections and parts. Baritone Zach Leach had a fine solo near the end.
The men's musical skills shone throughout the set, with strong tenors and basses providing a seamless blend and well-modulated dynamics.
Dr. Jami Rhodes led the ECU Women's Choir in four wonderful seasonal pieces, including J. Edmund Hughes' arrangement of "Alleluia Rejoice," based on "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel," and Ivo Antognini's "O Magnum Mysterium," which has been part of the ECU Chamber Singers' repertoire in the past. The former includes an interesting cascade of voices over treble handbells; the latter, with its lovely melody, was sung nicely in an arrangement for organ and cello accompaniment, and the cello line received a fine reading by Emma Johnson. The women's excellent performance of "Sussex Carol," in an imaginative setting by Corin T. Overland, included a lively flute accompaniment by Amanda Lueck.
Another highlight of the women's ensemble's set was Josef Rheinberger's "Puer Natus in Bethlehem," directed by graduate conducting associate Kimberly Ness. Occasionally overlooked as being in the shadow of Brahms, Rheinberger had a great melodic gift, and this piece includes fine melody and harmony, with some exquisite harmonic suspensions that the young women sang well. The women's group of more than 60 voices has a beautiful blend, whether in two-, three- or four-part music, and despite the fact that not all the singers are music majors.
The Chamber Singers closed the program with what could be described as mainly modern seasonal music, but even the most modern music was quite accessible, and the singers were spot-on from start to finish. The repertoire ranged from 19th century German composer Peter Cornelius to early 20th century British composer Edward Bairstow to contemporary Latvian composer Eriks Esenvalds.
The set opened with Esenvalds' "Magnificat," with some unusual close harmonies, and included a nice alto solo by Caroline Miller. Cornelius' "The Three Kings" featured ECU faculty member John Kramar as baritone soloist, and the combination of his wonderful voice and the choral cushion provided by the Chamber Singers worked quite well. The Chamber Singers offered Bairstow's "Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence," a version that is much different from, and often much darker than, the more familiar Picardy melody. The forte passage leading to the closing "Alleluia" was boldly sung and contrasted nicely with the softer ending that echoed the opening. An inventive version of "Jingle Bells," arranged by Gordon Langford, closed out the set in high spirits and great fun.
The audience also was invited to join in on three traditional carols ("Joy to the World," "The First Noel," and "O Come, All Ye Faithful") at the conclusion of each set and sang with considerable gusto.
And where did Elvis fit in? The Men's Choir included Keith Christopher's arrangement of "A Blue Christmas" in its set. The popular song was well performed, if just a little out of place, considering the rest of the evening's repertoire.