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Bel Canto Singers Christmastide Thrills Audience

Eldridge McPhee’s Bel Canto Singers, an ensemble well known here to all who appreciate professional performance standards, gave their annual Christmastide concert at St. Andrew’s the Kirk on December 4 and 5 to packed houses. Saturday night’s concert was their traditional fund-raising gala to benefit the AIDS Foundation of the Bahamas and Unity Center. A silent auction and a buffet dinner accompanied by selection of fine wines rounded out the evening’s festivities.

Mr. McPhee, who works tirelessly to direct these performances, knows how to bring out the best from his singers. Exquisite diction, achieved by clean cut-offs, coordination of pronunciation and enunciation, and well-rehearsed dynamic shadings, is a hallmark of the Bel Canto Singers, as it is for every group of high calibre. In addition, Mr. McPhee’s considerable skill in the selection of choral literature that both highlights the strengths of his singers and also has wide audience appeal is unparalleled.

The Bel Canto Singers were accompanied beautifully by pianists Dion Cunningham and Dr. Christy Lee of COB as well as by the chamber orchestra members of the Bahamas National Symphony Orchestra. Their most welcome and unobtrusively nuanced presence completed the aura of professionalism that always surrounds a Bel Canto performance. The outstanding string arrangements were provided by Denis Donaldson and Henry Moss.

American Soprano Kali Wilder was the guest artist for this year’s Christmastide event. Ms. Wilder, who received a Master’s degree in Vocal Performance in 2006 from the University of Kentucky, is an aspiring opera singer. Her lush voice and appropriately affective renditions delighted us all. Ms. Wilder’s first solo offering was Adam’s O Holy Night, that most operatic of Christmas carols. It was obvious that the words were truly meaningful for her. In particular, though, Ms. Wilder’s performance of MacGimsey’s Sweet Little Jesus Boy, a modern work written in the style of a spiritual, was especially poignant, so much so that it elicited sighs of pleasure from the audience. Certainly she is a promising young performer to watch as she matures in her art.

The Bel Canto Singers began their program with Nelson’s Glory to God, an offering well-suited to their big, beautiful voices, excellent articulation, and palpable excitement. This is a challenging work, with the sopranos singing an apparently effortless high C at the end of the piece. All in all, it was a brilliant and electrifying start to an evening of sheer delight.

The Nelson work was followed by Brooks’Infant Holy, Infant Lowly. The pitch was excellent, something not at all trivial to achieve; and the uniformity of vowel sounds among the singers lent a honeyed touch to the lovely legato delivery and the complex chromatic harmonies.

Dion Cunningham favored us with two piano arrangements from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite: the always-popular Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, and the Andante maestoso, which is probably the most dramatic descending scale ever written. Dion has a floatingly beautiful touch, which was well-suited to his choice of selections.

Bach’s Suscepit Israel from the Magnificat was sung movingly by the ladies and accompanied admirably by the string section of the orchestral ensemble. Later in the program, Larson’s I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day highlighted mezzo soprano Elizabeth Taylor, exemplifying the voice of purity and innocence.

Not to be outdone, the gentlemen sang Krogstad’s Birthday of a King, a piece with an excellent ebb and flow of dynamics and a socko finish where the tenors really shone. The men also sang Llewellyn’s De Virgin Mary Had a Baby Boy, a real crowd-pleaser featuring the powerful baritone voice of Allan Butler.

Mr. Butler was also a soloist along with the excellent mezzo sopranos Lillian Bastian and Kendenique Moxey in Wilcocks’Hush!My Dear, Lie Still and Slumber. Another Wilcocks arrangement was that of Silent Night, featuring the fine contralto voice of Linda Osborn and the rich baritone voice of Robert Pinder.

In conclusion, a Bel Canto Singers performance is always something to look forward to. We have high expectations, and they consistently deliver.

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