The North Carolina Symphony, with guest performers Tina Morris-Anderson, soprano, the Concert Singers of Cary, directed by Lawrence Speakman, and the Triangle Community Gospel Chorus, prepared by Lonieta Aurora Thompson Cornwall, infused a Saturday afternoon audience with a generous gift of great Christmas music which delighted everyone from the beginning to the end of the concert. William Henry Curry, NCS Resident Conductor, presided over all the musical proceedings with his usual amiability. He and all the musicians on the stage were obviously enjoying the music they made, and their pleasure reached everyone fortunate enough to hear them.
The orchestra members were in excellent form, playing with their usual energy and skills as they offered a variety of well-loved Christmas favorites in many musical styles. The opening number, John Wasson’s “Hark! The Herald Trumpets Sing,” a spirited, instrumentally colorful version of Mendelssohn’s beloved “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” was bursting with soaring lines demonstrating the trumpet players’ exciting ability to execute trills and other ornaments and play with seeming ease in the highest range their instruments can reach. Another piece filled with instrumental color, infectious rhythms, and engaging melody was “Dances from a Hanukkah Celebration,” composed by NCS trombonist Terry Mizesko. One of the best numbers on the program was Malcolm Arnold’s beautiful medley “The Holly and the Ivy, A Fantasy on Christmas Carols,” including, in addition to the title piece, “The First Noel,” “Away in a Manger,” and “I Saw Three Ships,” all of which clearly stimulated the composer’s efforts to treat the melodies of these carols in a way not heard before. The performance of this medley was the best in the first half of the concert, the players fully concentrated on exactly the right touch, now gentle, now forceful, to express completely the emotional power and beauty of the melodic lines in each carol.
In addition to the fine playing of the orchestra, soprano soloist Tina Morris-Anderson and the two choruses provided a variety of satisfying numbers that often caused the audience temperature in the hall to rise markedly. Morris-Anderson provided some of the most enjoyable singing in the concert. Her lovely, warm soprano voice is capable of great lyricism as well as impressive power, and her singing is especially suited to the great gospel songs she handles so well. Most of what she sang in this concert enabled her to work around an annoying register break, but in many instances she could not disguise it. Despite this criticism, I acknowledge with pleasure her ability to thrill her audience with her expressiveness, perhaps her greatest interpretive trait, in pieces such as “Mary had a Baby,” imbued with her sincere warmth and adoration of the holy child and his mother. Her impassioned ability to lift her voice in praise high above the choruses and the orchestra was the most powerful outpouring of religious joy I have heard in many years.
The two choruses which sang with her in several numbers were quite different from each other. The Concert Singers of Cary offered a very polished, homogeneous choral sound in each section, produced by voices which sing together and not in competition with each other. Vocal tone in all sections was rich and warm, and contributed much to the expressivity of the singing. Intonation was always secure, and rhythm reflected the conductor’s intentions. All the technical skills which must be present in an excellent chorus have become second nature to the members of this group.
The Concert Singers’ performance in this concert was strong. Their first piece, “Jingle Bells,” was pleasing but unfortunately was often covered up by the orchestra; this problem did not recur in any of their later pieces. Of all their numbers, John Rutter’s well-known “Donkey Carol” was most effective, with its sweetness of melody and textual sentiment, its very evocative 5/8 meter, and the soprano descant, which seemed to float above the music of several stanzas without drawing undue attention to itself. The Concert Singers’ final number, “Christmas Flourish,” featuring Morris-Anderson as soloist, was a stunning way to end the first half of the concert.
The remainder of the concert was a roof-raising expression of the Good News by the Triangle Community Gospel Chorus, whose chorus master, Lonieta Aurora Thompson Cornwall, formed and trained this group for the 2007 NCS Christmas Pops Concert. Their dynamic performance at that time caused them to be invited back this year. Their inimitable rocking, hand-clapping style, with its mixture of singing techniques learned in church and from the popular rock idiom, showed up immediately in this concert in such pieces as “Christmas Spiritual Medley,” arranged by Rev. Joseph Joubert, and “Mary had a Baby,” arranged by Michael Abels. Both these pieces were made even more exciting by Morris-Anderson’s solos, which allowed her to reach for the heavens in lines echoing those of the choir. The Chorus’ blockbuster numbers without incidental solos, Sonia Whitmore’s “Most Abundantly” and Eric McDaniels’ “What a Mighty God,” represented inspirational music at its best, with the hall vibrating with dynamic vocal sounds and hot rhythms, this latter produced to a great extent by the NCS' soul-inspired percussion and brass sections. The encore, a treatment of Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” rocking with a soul quotient so high that its composer would not recognize it, brought this concert to an end.
Those who have not yet heard these ensembles working together should not pass up the opportunity on Sunday at 3 p.m. It will help you find joy, open your spirit to the Christmas season, and forget for a little while the places in the world where good will to men and women has not penetrated human consciousness.