The Turtle Creek Chorale presented a musically satisfying and emotionally heartwarming holiday concert on Wednesday evening. Somehow, Artistic Director Trey Jacobs was able to walk that difficult line between the obvious Christian aspect of the season and serving a religiously diverse audience. There was something for everyone, even some snow and a very realistic Santa, in the Meyerson Symphony Center.
Musically, Jacobs has greatly improved the chorale. The sound is rich with an outstanding foundation in the bass section. The blend has also improved with the top tenor voices less obvious and the texture clarified so that the inner voices are able to shine. Even better, the pitch is spot on. In the past, they had a tendency to skate on the low side of the pitch. TCC is now as good a male choir as you will hear anywhere and it bodes well for the future.
The dichotomy that TCC has always presented—the classical and the camp—has been divided into two concerts for the holidays. This concert, the relatively serious one (that still has some fun stuff), Comfort and Joy, and that is the subject of this review, repeats on Monday, Dec. 10 at the Meyerson. The more, shall we say festive, shindig, Naughty and Nice, A Very Turtle Christmas, will play on Dec. 20-23 at the new City Performance Hall.
Jacobs' musical taste runs towards the fusion of classical and new age music and this program is no exception. There was a lack of music by major composers. While the all-male choir presents some repertory challenges, arrangements are plentiful and the Windham Hill harmonies began to tire the ear.
The two best pieces, as far as serious music goes, were one the first half. Morten Lauridsen's 1994 O Magnum Mysterium has become a classic. There are myriad recordings out there by major choral groups. You may not know his name unless you are involved with choral music, but the Distinguished Professor of Composition at the University of Southern California Thornton School of Music has replaced Randall Thompson, to whom he owes everything, as the most performed American composer these days.
The other fine piece of choral writing was an austere, but lovely, setting of In the Bleak Midwinter by Dallas composer Victor Johnson. He is in his 10th year of teaching at the Fort Worth Academy of Fine Arts. He is also in his tenth year as director of the Children's Choir of Texas and serves at the Shiloh Baptist Church in Plano as Minister of Worship and Fine Arts.
The musical selections were interspersed with brief stories, vignettes really, and some poetry. A charming Gary Lynn Floyd and a little more saccharin Sally Vahle were the narrators. This worked quite nicely as some of the narration was touching and other selections wry and amusing.
There was a hat tip to the Jewish faith with Steven Schwartz's "Chahukah Song," as arranged by Mac Huff, which used lit candles (flashlights, really) to a magical effect. There were also a lot of secular selections to balance out all of the Christian music so that everyone felt welcome to celebrate the holiday festivities. It was a nice balance.
A chorus of dancing Santas enlivened John Frederick Coats jazzy "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" (arranged by David Maddux) and brought a very real looking Santa (played by Charles Hodnet) onstage. The same jazz dance group reappeared later, this time in tails and white gloves, to welcome the snow machine that seems to be required at all holiday concerts these days. A tap-dancing Frosty the Snowman (played by Hank Henley) joined the fray. Julie Hall cleverly did all of the jazz choreography, which was limited to a sort-of line dancing format by the meager space allotment in front of the instrumental combo.
Speaking of which, there was a small combo if instrumentalists that played occasionally. They could have been used more times than they were. Principal accompanist Scott Ayers was a marvel at the piano. It didn't matter what style was required, he was perfect all evening. Associate accompanist Rebecca Lowrey did a good job when she joined him for one work that required piano four-hands.
On the clever side, a very familiar piece (and the only one on the program by one of the all time great composers) was given a new set of words by arranger Danny Ray. You won't find a spoiler alert here as to what music this is, but the words have been changed from Hallelujah to describing eating scorching hot Tex-Mex food.
The end of the concert, and the final selections, is so traditional that Jacobs invited anyone in the audience who had previously sung with the Chorale to join them on stage. He said this was the first time that TCC did such a thing and quite a few joined them. Even though they had not rehearsed, they were still able to sing the final selections from memory.
They sang Kris Anthony's "I Shall Miss Loving You" as a tribute to brothers that had passed on, a shocking 193 in 33 years, which has finally tapered off as the HIV/AIDS crisis has become more manageable. There were only three this year. Still three too many, whatever the cause. Many in the audience needed a hanky.
One of the best known selections of gay choruses everywhere is the singing of "Silent Night" —silently. The chorus always has a sign interpreter and watching Don Jones' eloquent hand motions is part of the treat. So, when the chorus signs a verse of "Silent Night" without singing, you can appreciate what the deaf in the audience experience. It was, and always has been, a very moving experience.
So was the entire concert.