Dallas — The Turtle Creek Chorale, Dallas’ 200-plus voice men’s chorus, delivered the first of four performances of the 2016 version of its annual Christmas show Thursday night at Dallas City Performance Hall, with a heavy dose of a corn syrup, and, amidst the laughs and hanky-jerking sentimentality, a few serious thoughts to ponder.
The chorus has long been a mainstay and focal point of the Dallas gay community, emerging nearly four decades ago at a moment of hope and progress in a time that, in retrospect, seems almost impossibly oppressive. While still in its infancy, the group picked up the torch of artistic expression and carried it through the darkest hours of the AIDS crisis, providing hundreds of participants and countless audience members with consolation and a reason to move forward. Yes, singing has a way of doing that for human beings.
This year’s manifestation of holiday spirit, titled “A Not So Silent Night,” ranged from a Beethoven excerpt to a high-camp spoof of traditional Christmas carols. And, though the concept was a bit closer to a high school variety show than a classical concert, the level of artistry delivered by the chorus, conductor, and guest soloist, was consistently impressive.
Through the years, a series of appropriately demanding conductors have molded this group of male singers, many with minimal musical background (and quite a few with extensive training in high school and college choral programs) into a precise and versatile ensemble. Diction was impressively clean and crisp—no small accomplishment with a vocal ensemble of this size—and intonation was perfect in every moment. For this listener, the most impressive aspect was the beautiful tone quality of two-hundred well-disciplined male singers in ensemble. Director-conductor Sean Mikel Baugh generally demands a light head voice to successfully create a smooth, well-blended tone, but knows exactly when to pull out the muscular energy two hundred men singing together can produce at special moments.
Surrounding a giant Christmas tree built from red poinsettias, with a 14-member brass ensemble drawn from the Lone Star Wind Symphony in front, conductor Baugh and the chorus opened with the chant-like “Alleluia Incantation” of Andrew Miller, decorated with chime-like handbells. The opening movement of John Rutter’s Gloria, here arranged for men’s chorus and brass further set the tone of grand festivity.
A set of jazzy arrangements of traditional carols and enduring holiday hits, including “We Three Kings,” “Silver Bells,” Leontovich’s “Bell Carol” were interspersed throughout the evening; the world premiere of the brief but joyful “Not-So-Silent fanfare” for brass and percussion by Christopher Tucker opened the second half, leading into one of the best of several high points of the evening, the Nigerian carol “Betelehemu,” accompanied by traditional African percussion and the marching percussion ensemble of Timber Creek High School in Keller. An arrangement of the final “Hallelujah” chorus from Beethoven’s oratorio The Mount of Olives provided an energized turn in the classical direction.
Appearances by Texas-reared, TCU-trained Broadway and operetta star Jennifer Piacenti provided several other highlights of the evening; Piacenti cheerfully blended her top-notch professionalism with these top-notch volunteer performers, as well as presenting an awed, emotionally charged rendition of that enduring 19th-century favorite “O Holy Night.” Throughout the evening, pianist Scott Ayers provided consistently fine, sometimes amazingly adept support.
Moments of camp and comedy abounded as well, including a team of lustily choreographed reindeer and a montage of spoofs on favorite carols, crowned with “We Three Queens” and an all-too-politically-correct “We Wish You an Appropriate Holiday Acknowledgement.”
Along with the inevitable “Little Drummer Boy” and “Let there be Peace on Earth,” the evening ended with a tribute to departed members of the chorus, a subtle reminder, amidst the glitz, gaiety, and sentimentality, that, given anticipated and uncertain developments at the federal level, the Turtle Creek Chorale is ready to continue to provide a loud, clear, and not-at-all-silent voice in the unfinished struggle for human rights in Dallas, America, and the World.