The Choral Society of Durham's annual holiday concert, this year entitled "Christmas Music for Choir and Brass" took place amid an unseasonably early (at least for North Carolina) winter weather advisory. However, that did not hinder either the concert or concertgoers from enjoying an evening of holiday music. This was undeniably a program of contrasts: the first half was chant-like, reverent works, and the second half was more contemporary and exuberant favorites. Put together, the program explored the duality of celebrating the Christmas season – joyfulness and festivities, while recognizing the reason for celebration. Conductor and director Rodney Wynkoop led the choir through both halves with ease.
Modern composer Bob Chilcott's Advent Antiphons consists of seven unaccompanied movements, each using the melody and text of the "O" Antiphons – centuries-old Advent texts that all begin with the word "O," addressing seven different names for the Messiah. Each of these short movements was interposed with another piece of varying origin, with a text that echoes the theme of each antiphon. Most of the Chilcott antiphons begin in a simple chant style, evoking its inspiration, but then delve into thick, lush harmonies. This dense texture was emphasized by the reverberation inside Duke Chapel to great effect. The accompanying pieces to each antiphon provided some contrast in texture and style without losing reverence, such as Ralph Vaughan Williams' "The Blessed Son of God," a chorale-like English piece employing lots of suspensions.
Movement three ("O Radix Jesse") was a highlight, due to the choir's execution of Chilcott's employment of aleatoric texture, where the women sang motifs with free rhythmic improvisation over a written part for the tenors and basses. The effect was unique and eerie, yet each motif could be heard from within. The piece sung after movement six ("O Rex gentium"), "Puer natus est nobis" by Arjan van Baest, contained the most bold harmonies and dynamics of the program's first half, with unpredictable chromaticism and sudden, terraced shifts in volume.
Julian Wachner's The Snow Lay on the Ground: Festive Carol Settings provided a lot more volume in general, especially with the addition of a brass and percussion ensemble. Despite the challenge of achieving balance in such a reverberant space, the choir was not overpowered by the exuberant brass and percussion. The resulting effect in the cathedral-like space was a very visceral experience for the audience. The brass ensemble really shone in "Un Flambeau," where fragments of the melody were tantalizingly introduced and then brought together. In addition, the choir's execution of the French text was notable, all linked with the gently rocking meter.
Part of what makes Wachner's arrangements unique is his determination to write fresh harmonies to very well-known songs, often by adding a descant part or through the audience taking over the melody completely (such as in "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" or "Angels We Have Heard on High"). After the wonderment and unexpected explosion of "The Snow Lay on the Ground" and the syncopated bass ostinato of "Nino Lindo," "The First Nowell" was the joyous finale for the set and the concert. Here, all performers came together (including the audience) to experience the jubilance of Christmas.