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Choral society resurrected in audience-pleasing concert

By Dale Higbee

For The Salisbury Post

The Salisbury-Rowan Choral Society will be celebrating its centenary in 2010, but had lost much of its previous vigor in recent years. So it was a pleasure to be on hand to witness their “Resurrection” in a fine Thanksgiving/ Advent concert Sunday afternoon in the sanctuary of the First United Methodist Church.

This was Sarah Hall’s debut as new conductor of the group, and she put on a first-rate show with an audience-pleasing program with something for everyone. Hall is a composer of considerable talent, as well as a fine church musician, teacher and music critic. Now she can add conducting to her list of credits.

The program opened with a Prelude, Bach’s “Now Thank We All Our God,” followed by the national anthem. Next came a section titled “We Give Thanks for a Nation of Plenty:” an attractive arrangement of “America the Beautiful,” sung by the chorus with a full, rich blend, and then a spirited performance of Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.”

Mary Mendenhall, a soprano with a big operatic voice, made her Salisbury debut as soloist in “I Will Give Thanks Unto Thee,” arranged from music by Rossini. The choral singing was focused and beautiful, and Mendenhall’s singing was marvelous.

She was featured again in the next section titled “We Celebrate Mozart’s 250th Birthday” in the Laudate Dominum from the composer’s Solemn Vespers, composed in Salzburg in 1780. This is a truly exquisite aria and Mendenhall’s singing was ravishing — for this listener, the high point of the concert.

The section titled “The Season of Advent Approaches” opened with Mendelssohn’s “Behold a Star from Jacob Shining,” one of the few choruses the composer managed to complete in the oratorio Christus before his early death at 38. The choral society singers achieved a full, rich sound with a nice blend in this piece, as they did in the arrangement of Bach’s “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring” which followed.

An arrangement of “The First Noel,” superimposed over Pachelbel’s famous Canon, was followed by the popular “Carol of the Bells” by Leontovich, and then a touch of Gospel music, Don Besig’s “Glory Hallelu!” featuring Michael Brooks, tenor.

During the interlude, in which a collection was taken, the instrumental ensemble (members of The Salisbury Symphony) performed Bach’s “Now Let Every Tongue Adore Him,” which reminded me of attending services in Moravian churches where there was a church band playing preludes and with the hymns, a nice tradition that other denominations might consider as ways of enriching their music programs.

The Christmas section of the concert, titled “Will It Snow This Year?,” featured the artistry of Rebecca Stinson, a fine jazz stylist and soul singer. “The Christmas Song” by Mel Torme and Robert Wells, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” by Kim Gannon and Walter Kent, was followed by the ever-popular “White Christmas” by Irving Berlin, and then “Sleigh Ride” by Mitchell Parris and Leroy Anderson. Bringing the program to a happy close was “Go Tell it on the Mountain,” with the choir belting it out and Stinson’s joyous performance reminding me of a wonderful black church service.

The world is fraught with many divisions today, but I believe that music can serve a healing role and reach out to our common humanity. The inclusive nature of this program by The Salisbury-Rowan Choral Society was a remarkable example of this, and I think that they made a very wise decision in choosing Sarah Hall as their new music director and conductor. I look forward to their future concerts and think they now have a good chance of celebrating their 100th birthday in style.

* * *

Dale Higbee is music director of Carolina Baroque (www.carolinabaroque.org), now in its 19th season. He served as president of the Salisbury-Spencer Choral Society in 1958 when Robert Weaver was conductor.

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