People attending the second of two concerts by the Chapel Hill Community Chorus made their way to Hill Hall as snow flurried around them and dusted the sidewalks – a perfect meteorological overture for a festive holiday concert that concurrently marked the 120-voice ensemble's 30th anniversary. It's hard to imagine a self-respecting town of any size without a choir of some sort, but until the fall of 1980, when pianist and conductor Victor Recondo invited citizens of Chapel Hill and Carrboro to join his elementary and junior high school students to help form what was then the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Community Chorus, the prevailing mood in the village surrounding UNC was to let the university take care of art and culture. (Of course, Hill Hall was also the birthplace of the NC Symphony, back in 1932, but even in its earliest years that group was never meant to be of and for Chapel Hill, and indeed it would be 1983 – three years after the CHCC was launched – before there was a town & gown Village Orchestra.)
Those early years for the CHCC coincided with Spectator Magazine's efforts to unite the Triangle culturally through its extensive reporting on Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill performing arts activities, and one of the benefits of that was the opportunity to chart groups like this choral organization as they grew and developed. The CHCC's directors changed over time, as Jeffrey Johnson (1988-92) and then Carl Stam (1992-2000) assumed leadership roles. Sue T. Klausmeyer's appointment as conductor in 2000 inaugurated a period of steady and secure artistic growth for the group, further enriched by the establishment (in 2006) of the CHCC's small, mostly a cappella ensemble, Cantari. (For a brief history of the CHCC, see TriangleSings Executive Director Carol Robbins' essay at http://www.chapelhillcommunitychorus.org/history.html.)
The hall was decked out with poinsettias at the lip of the stage, but the 30th anniversary is being marked with some exceptional programming under the banner, "A Season of Roses" – for the ensemble and for the community it serves. This theme was reflected in several selections in this concert – "There is no rose of such virtue" was the central part of William Mathias' Ave Rex, guest artists Carolina Brass played "Lo, How a Rose E're Blooming" in the middle of its post-intermission group, and John Joubert's "There is No Rose" served to bring the choir back for its grand finale. Bouquets of roses were awarded to audience members who won drawings, and after the show there were more roses for guest organist Susan Moeser.
The concert began with one of the most festive works in captivity, John Rutter's Gloria, a three-part setting of traditional texts for chorus, brass, and organ. The organ was a small one, of the chamber variety, the original Hill Hall instrument having been removed some time ago. Under Moeser's skilled hands it spoke discretely, adding flavor to the augmented brass ensemble (two extra trumpets and a second trombone joined the quintet that is Carolina Brass), timpanist, and percussionist.* This Gloria isn't uniformly glorious – the second half of the second section is fairly dark – but as a unit it is an inspiring work, and the chorus and its accompanying forces did it radiant justice, projecting admirable balance (despite the preponderance of women in the choral mix, in a ratio of roughly 2:1 over the men), exceptional diction, and crisp, precise singing throughout. A brief soprano solo in the second part was sung by Claire Wright. A minor coordination glitch resulted in a brief pause toward the end of the opening section, but recovery was prompt.
It may be worth noting that some sound-absorbing canvas panels have been added around the stage and at the back of the hall. In combination with these improvements, a shell, and the massing of the singers on risers, the resulting sound projected admirably without ever seeming overloaded, even with the augmented brass group at the front of the stage.
The second work in the first half, the aforementioned Mathias work, Ave Rex, is an attractive "carol sequence" by the composer of "Let the People Praise Thee," written for the 1981 wedding of Diana and Charles. Klausmeyer's excellent program notes put Ave Rex in context, quoting the composer about the music, which has some decidedly "contemporary" overtones. The organ accompaniment was somewhat more prominent here, without the brass players, but there were moments when that big old floor shaker of an instrument would have been welcome…. Again, the chorus sang exceptionally well, responding beautifully to its director's smooth leadership.
Following the presentation of those rose bouquets, Carolina Brass (trumpets Timothy Hudson and guest Josh Frank with Bob Campbell, horn, David Wulfeck, trombone, and Matt Ransom, tuba) offered six skillful arrangements of Christmas songs and carols – "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen," "O Come Emmanuel," "Lo, How a Rose," "The First Noel," "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," and "We Wish You a Merry Christmas." These reminded listeners – if a reminder were needed – that Carolina Brass is an absolutely first-rate chamber ensemble whose members compare favorably in terms of talent and showmanship, too, with the very best such groups working today.
The chorus returned for Joubert's "There is No Rose" and "Torches," considered one of the finest "new" Christmas works of our time. The former work, sung a cappella, surely warmed the hearts of all present; the second built excitement that spilled over into the program's concluding number, a medley of seasonal numbers by Stephen Chatman – Christmas Joy! – consisting of seven numbers, linked by recurring use of "Noel, Noel, Sing Christmas Joy!" With organ, brass, and percussion, and with an audience sing-along of "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" at the end of the sequence, the program concluded with the entire audience on its feet, applauding the artistic accomplishments of the Chapel Hill Community Chorus yet again in this, its 30th anniversary season.
*The brass augmentees were James Ketch and John Parker, trumpets, and Steve Truckenbrod was the second trombone. The percussionists were Matt Thurrell and Jake Waits.