William Adams, DMA

It is rare to find large choruses that excel in multiple genres. More often than not, larger choruses focus on oratorios, cantatas, pieces conceived for the scope and power of larger choirs. They usually do not try to sing pieces that were intended for chamber ensembles. They also usually focus on “classical” repertoire although, in fairness, many larger ensembles will sing Monteverdi with equal aplomb as Whitacre. But larger ensembles that sing Monteverdi will not sing gospel, nor will they sing arrangements for Pentatonix. This is because these ensembles can only sing one of these genres well. That’s a rule.

Apparently, no one told Choral Arts Collective about this rule.

Breaking every stereotype about the large choir, the Choral Arts Collective, comprised of the Bel Canto Company and the Gate City Voices, presented a program of holiday music that varied from John Rutter to Pentatonix. They transitioned from style to style effortlessly not only in the musical nuances of each genre but in their tone and vocal production. Some selections were presented by the full company (Gate City Voices), others were presented by the slightly smaller Bel Canto Company, and there were two pieces with a subset of the Bel Canto Company of around sixteen voices. The program consisted of sixteen pieces from various traditions and in various styles. It was an eclectic mix that was paced very well.

Overall, the ensemble’s sound is very big and rich, beautifully balanced with very present and sonorous sounds from the bass section progressing to full, yet lyric and resonant singing from the sopranos. The alto and tenor sections sing with equal presence and vitality, not just filling the gaps but providing strong timbral connections and creating an impressive spectrum of sound across the sections. They showed great versatility in being able to sing Rutter with all the appropriate grace and nuance one would expect but then shift their timbre to a brighter, more pop-informed tone for arrangements designed for Pentatonix and Voctave.

Christy Wisuthseriwong provided virtuosic accompaniment. She plays with exquisite tone and control and becomes another voice in the ensemble rather than a separate layer providing support. Special mention must be made of the four-hand piano accompaniment for Dan Forrest’s setting of “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.” Anne Lewis joined Ms. Wisuthseriwong for an exuberant, fiery performance. Percussionists Steve McHugh and Joseph Turner never overpowered the choirs, playing sensitively but with precision and also demonstrating great versatility. Organist LeeArron Klosterman also showed excellent awareness of balancing the choirs but also brought forth rich and commanding statements from the organ.

Brittany Kaehler, the assistant conductor for the Choral Arts Collective, conducted three selections for the evening. Ms. Kaehler is a very expressive conductor with exceptional control and anticipation with the ensemble. As they say in the business: “she has great hands.” Her conducting is very fluid but clear and defined; the nuances are easy to read but she doesn’t over-direct. Her presence is commanding but not over bearing. She is an excellent, accomplished conductor with an exciting career ahead of her. Artistic Director and Conductor Welborn E. Young is a master of the craft. His conducting is concise but expressive, nuanced, clear, and always in complete control. 

Guest soloist Tahnai Hand was featured on two gospel arrangements: “Children, Go Where I Send Thee” and “Go Tell it on the Mountain.” Ms. Hand showed a wide range of expression with her voice, beginning each solo with a smaller sound that was simpler, even somewhat innocent, and evolving into a much larger, fuller sound with presence and exuberance. Her style and sense of the gospel / blues feel is exemplary and exciting to listen to. Gerald Whittington and Sam Howell were featured in the Barrington Brooks arrangement of “Betelehemu.” Each voice had a beautiful tone and were obviously well trained. There were some balancing issues between them but they sang musically and with great energy. Eby Buscher was the soloist for Derric Johnson’s treatment of “Still, still, still.” Ms. Buscher’s tone was beautiful, warm, and very lyrical with exceptional balance and control throughout her range. Ethan Wood and Robert Frederick provided a bit of comedy in their duet for “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” It was a clever move to use two basses here to increase the power of the solo line. They were quite entertaining, hamming it up and playing off each other very well. 

For the uninitiated, this program had beautiful moments of great classical choral writing juxtaposed with fun, modern pop arrangements of old favorites that surely has them wanting to hear what’s next. For the choral aficionado, the programming, the pacing, and the incredible versatility of the ensembles made this program a highlight of the season. Welborn Young has crafted one of the preeminent choral programs to be found anywhere in this state and beyond.