A Feast’ for the ears

by Keith Barber

A ‘Feast ’ for the ears First Baptist Church on 5 th Street in W-S has holiday program

The architecture of the First Baptist Church on 5 th Street in Winston-Salem inspires a variety of emotions, chiefly awe. Enormous marble columns reach toward the heavens, supporting a tremendous dome adorned with frescoes reminiscent of the Sistine Chapel. The church’s design is a monument to the mystery that lies beyond this life. It is in this sublime setting that the annual “Feast of Carols” Christmas musical program was held Dec. 21. David Williamson, First Baptist’s minister of worship and the arts, led members of the Winston-Salem Symphony and the church’s choir in a joyous celebration of Christmas music. The spectacularly beautiful renditions of the 10 Christmas musical pieces performed made it extremely difficult to respect the decorum of the church service and not applaud at the end of each number. One young fan, who appeared to be 2 or 3 years old, broke out into applause after the orchestra performed the rousing “Trepak” from Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker. The members of the Winston-Salem Symphony could undoubtedly play “Trepak” and “March of the Nutcracker” in their sleep, considering the UNC School of the Arts’ performances of the holiday ballet at the Stevens Center recently concluded. The high point of the evening came when the choir and the orchestra joined forces in the performance of “What Child is This.” Set to the tune of “Greensleeves,” the orchestral and choral performance of the old English hymn filled vast inner space of the church with a feeling, an energy that felt something akin to the Christmas spirit. Music is a vital part of any Christmas celebration. Talented musicians and singers have the power to lift their audience to a higher place. Such was the case with the Winston-Salem Symphony members and the First Baptist chorus at Sunday’s “Feast of Carols.” The collaborative artists began with a performance of “Personent Hodie,” a 14 th -century hymn, which tells the story of the first Christmas. Program hosts Annice Hogsette and Randy Peters explained to the audience that the tradition of Christmas carols goes all the way back to the 13 th century, although carols were originally communal songs sung during celebrations at harvest time as well as Christmas. It was only later that carols began to be sung in church, and to be specifically associated with Christmas. During the Reformation, wassailing, the practice of going door-to-door and singing Christmas carols, was frowned upon by the church. But wassailing experienced a resurgence in the 19 th century, so as part of the “Feast of Carols” celebration, the audience was asked to join in a Christmas carol sing-a-long. The orchestra and chorus transitioned smoothly between “Joy to the World,” “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” “Hark!

The Herald Angels Sing” and “Silent Night” as the audience gleefully joined in. The fascinating story behind the song, “I Wonder as I Wander”, gave greater import to Sally Mir’s solo vocal performance of the 20 th -century Christmas song during “Feast of Carols.” “I Wonder as I Wander” has its origins in a song fragment collected in 1933 by folklorist and singer John Jacob Niles. While traveling through Murphy, NC, Niles met a young girl named Annie Morgan who sang two verses from the song. That experience inspired Niles to compose a piece that could be called the “Amazing Grace” of Christmas carols. The first verse of the song, “I wonder as I wander, out under the sky, how Jesus the Savior did come for to die for poor on’ry people like you and like I,” tell the Christmas story with anAppalachian cultural inflection.

The orchestra and chorus alsoperformed a number of other traditional Christmas songs — all withfascinating histories — such as “Heaven and Earth Are Ringing,” “TheWinter Rose,” “Candlelight Carol,” “Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day”and “Do You Hear What I Hear”. The story behind “Do You Hear What IHear,” the most contemporary of all the Christmas songs performed, hasto do with a call for peace in a time of international crisis. GloriaShayne Baker and Noel Regney wrote the song in 1962 during the heightof the Cuban Missile Crisis as a plea for peace. The song hassold millions of copies and been covered by hundreds of differentartists. Legend has it that Robert Goulet’s version was Baker andRegney’s favorite. The choir and orchestra broke fromtradition in its performance of African Noel, a delightful rendition of“Noel” with African percussion and a rhythmic phrasing by the choir.The show concluded with “Masters in This Hall,” an 1860s hymn in OldEnglish as pianist Amy Turner showed off her virtuosity in a fittingend to a masterful performance by the choir and orchestra. The audience was reminded that the concert was a fundraiser for Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest North Carolina,which serves more than 400 partner agencies in 18 counties, a worthcause at this time of the year. Lyrics of Christmas songs serve as areminder of the true meaning of the season, and a charitableorganization such as Second Harvest brings into stark focus how theChristmas spirit is the one thing that binds every member of the humanrace at this time of year.

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David Williamson conducts the First Baptist Choir and members of the Winston- Salem Symphony Orchestra during A Feast of Carols in the church’s sanctuary. (photo by Keith T. Barber)