Dallas — The Turtle Creek Chorale presented a beautifully curated and excellently performed holiday concert on Friday, the first of a three-day, four-concert, and sold-out run. In recent years, concerts by the organization have been much more serious about the music and much less silly about the schtick (which always has been integral to the organization). The use of an orchestral ensemble, in addition to Scott Ayres’ superb piano playing, is another factor that gives the concert a significant upgrade.
Another plus is that one, called 40 Years of Fa La La, really was a holiday concert — not just starting with “Jingle Bells” and then Jesus all the way. Of course, it will always be Christian-centric, as it should be, because that is the majority makeup of North Texas. But who doesn’t love to hear selections like Leroy Anderson’s joyous gallop, “Sleigh Ride”? or a devastatingly moving set piece about anti-Semitism and “Betelehemu,” a Nigerian Christmas song that endowed the proceedings a welcome universal appeal.
The program opened with dueling violinists, giving “We Three Kings” a Celtic-cum-Roma rosin rough-house approach that immediately made the audience sit up and pay attention. By contrast, the second half started quietly with an intoned delivery of “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Quiet.” A nice touch.
There is a guest soloist, the Dublin-born singer-songwriter and actress Chloe Agnew of Celtic Women fame. Their 14 albums have sold more than eight million copies worldwide. Perhaps she was suffering from the cold that is endemic in Dallas or reacting to all of the allergens that afflict our area, but her voice sounded a little rough and she was careful not to push it too far for fear of it breaking. That said, she delivered an impressive performance, using both her low and soprano voice. She was also a little hard to hear.
The dynamite soprano of the evening was countertenor Rashaad Calaham who dazzled with flights of coloratura cadenzi and popped out a high Q at the end. Local favorite Denise Lee made a couple of appearances that showed her range —from a grumpy Mrs. Claus to Fred Small’s “Not in our Town,” a song about refusing to tolerate anti-Semitism or bigotry of any kind. It stunned the audience.
The ragtag dance troupe, Soundbytes, gave us a couple of different performances as both top-hat-and-tails-hoofers and two-steppn’ elves. On the camp side, a purposely clumsy brass band made up of the unlikely combination of tubas and baritone horns played a dyspeptic version of “The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” with a hysterically funny troupe of plus-size male ballet dancers in ridiculous tutus. The body positivity was fabulous! Kudos to choreographer Rickey Phoummany.
Other musical treats abounded. A funny parade of monks “sang” Handel’s Halleluiah Chorus, while keeping their vow of silence by the use of a clever card trick. On a serious note, the concert ended traditionally with a singing of “Silent Night” followed by an American Sign Language version that never fails to make me grateful for the ability to hear. It was directed by the always-eloquent ASL signer Don Jones. Another surprise happened at the end of part one, in the performance of the aforementioned Nigerian song, “Betelehemu,” ably accompanied by a percussion battery of bongos. As the ending drew nigh, a Drum Line from Timberline High School marched in and raised both the decibels and delight from the infectious cross rhythms of this energetic piece.
It wasn’t only the music that was more polished than in some years past, the actual production was as tightly produced and seamlessly presented as any touring Broadway show. Scenic designers Michelle Harvey, Joshua Hargrave and Brent Rosinski delivered a gorgeous stage setting for the tuxedoed men with a huge Christmas tree made out of a stack of poinsettias that honors TCC members that have passed away, and in a somber moment, 13 new ones were added this year. But it was the lighting design by Scott Guenther that brought the entire production to life. It is highlighted by a rear projection scrim in the background that offered striking effects from a dramatic Bethlehem star to a light and quite realistic light dusting of snow. One of the Christmas miracles was how sound engineer Brian Gornick made a small group of strings, brass, a doubling wind player, drums and piano sound like a full orchestra.