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Saturday afternoon's concert by the Carolina Concert Choir was delivered in the Bo Thomas Auditorium of Blue Ridge Community College, a slightly dry acoustic space (optimized for speech, not music) that did not hinder this fine ensemble. The program was all-Mozart, beginning with the choral gem "Ave Verum Corpus" (K.618) and then presenting the famous Requiem Mass in D minor (K.626).
During my seventeen years living first in Hendersonville and now in Asheville, I have marveled at how seldom people cross the county line to attend musical events in their sister community. Buncombe County residents don't attend events in Henderson County, and vice versa. It is a shame, because that half hour trip can yield big dividends. One is the joy of attending a performance by the Carolina Concert Choir. Active in the musical life of Henderson County since 1979, the CCC is the premiere choral ensemble of Western North Carolina. These dedicated, talented and experienced choral singers, selected by annual audition, rehearse and perform in Hendersonville but come from Asheville, Hendersonville, Brevard, Cullowhee and upstate South Carolina communities. The group began in 1979 as a small madrigal choir, carefully expanded to about thirty-five singers during 2002-2013 when Bradford Gee was music director, and stepped up to its size of about fifty under its current director, Lawrence Doebler. Maestro Doebler, retired in Hendersonville since 2013, was previously Director of Choral Activities at Ithaca College, where he taught for thirty-five years.
What do Frank Sinatra and Lawrence Doebler have in common? A dedication to text. Sinatra was famous for selecting songs on the basis of their lyrics and then carefully and clearly delivering those lyrics. Doebler, in his "Director's Letter" in Saturday's program, states that "My philosophy in performing and preparing choral music is that the text and its meaning must be primary." In this case, the text was all-Latin. A Carolina audience has few people who know Latin; probably they attend a non-liturgical church and are unfamiliar with the sequence of a mass. So how did Doebler manage to make the text and its meaning primary? He presented a "Guided Tour of Requiem" in which he described the structure of the Requiem and the English meaning of the text in the twelve sections. He illustrated his talk with brief excerpts by the choir and the accompanying twenty-piece chamber orchestra. He touched on double fugues, stretti, and deceptive cadences, never sounding pedantic but always describing how these tools illustrated the meaning of the passages being sung. He concluded by inviting the audience each to think of a person or people in their personal lives who have died, and listen to the requiem in joyful remembrance of their lives and in comfort of their survivors.
Doebler presented this masterful guide following the brief "Ave Verum Corpus," which most choir members sang from memory, adding to the tightness of the ensemble.
Then, with Doebler's explanation of the mass, its text and its music fresh in their ears, the audience was treated to a fine performance of the Requiem Mass, marred only by some deficiencies in the tenor soloist and an orchestral trombonist. The soprano and baritone soloists, Lauren Sims Salata and Bart Gilleland, were fine throughout. The alto solos, shared by Christie Olsen and Geli Klimek, were adequate or better. Unfortunately, the tenor soloist Rennie Salata appeared to be having an off day. His sound was often tight and constricted, and his vocal color did not rise to the quality of the other soloists and the choir. The trombone soloist’s bad intonation marred the effectiveness of one important passage.
But the choir! The choir never sounded stretched, even at the top and bottom of their range. Their tone was focused and their emotions were intelligently rendered. There are just enough young student voices in the choir to keep the sound from being too "mature" and these singers, young and old, are fine musicians and had been well prepared. Attacks were consistently clean, dynamics well delivered and there simply aren't enough good things to say about this performance by the choir.
Carolina Concert Choir. "Only Mozart." An exciting and insightful program. Memorable.