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Elizabeth City State University (ECSU) Concert Choir

Singing to the Joy of the Season

Kip Tabb

What an amazing afternoon of music the Elizabeth City State University (ECSU) Concert Choir brought to St. Andrews by the Sea in Nags Head on Sunday.

The featured performance was Amahl and the Night Visitors. Composed by Gian Carlo Menotti in 1951 for the television premier of Hallmark Hall of Fame, it is an enduring story of love and the meaning of faith. 

What ECSU brought to the Outer Banks was was everything the opera was ever supposed to be and a bit more.

The voices of the performers were as good as any to be heard on stage. Suzanne McGuire as the mother brought a power and range to her role that focused attention on her as a single mother trying to raise a child given to flights of fancy. The three kings, Kaspar (Ja’Zhan Holmes-Wynn), Balthazar (Matthew Weeks), and Melchior (Isiah Hairston) and their Page (Isiah Marshall) had voices that matched their parts to perfection.

But the title role of Amahl performed by Chantal Johnson truly stood out. Amahl is a young boy; Chantal is a young lady, yet her mannerisms, the way in which she played her part were so convincing that she became the little boy who could only walk with his handmade crutches.

With no scenery and only the piano for accompaniment, it was left to the cast to tell the story—and through voice, gesture and interaction they did it spectacularly well. Of particular note was how effective the interchange was between Johnson and McGuire.

The magic of the afternoon, though, was not solely in the performance of Amhl and the Night Visitors. 

What the ECSU choir brought to Nags Head was a reminder in the most powerful, in the most wonderful and visceral way, the power of a live performance of music.

Introducing Amahl was the soaring vocals of the female ensemble as they performed O Come, Come Emmanuel.

Choir conductor Dr. Walter Swan created an arrangement for Away in the Manger that was at once a tribute to the history and origin of the song, yet brought modern elements of chord patterns and interpretation to the music.

Tying all of those elements together was the marvelous voice of Isiah Marshall creating the sense of a timeless classic in a performance for the 21st century.

Then there was Aisha Crosland and her solo performance of I Love the Lord.

The vocal power she brought to her performance was astonishing, but powerful vocals without control is just screaming, and what Crosland had was absolute control over her voice, coming to each note with precision, modulating the dynamics of the soaring melody to bring out the message of faith and hope of the song.

Based on Psalm 116 of the Bible and composed by Richard Smallwood, Whitney Houston performed the song in the movie The Preacher’s Wife, and that is no doubt the best known version. What Crosland brought to the St. Andrews by the Sea nave was her own interpretation of the song, and it was memorable. So memorable that the audience rose up in a spontaneous standing ovation in tribute to her skill.

The holiday season is a time of fellowship—a time to come together and celebrate our common bonds of humanity. Nowhere is that more apparent in the traditional songs of the season and it was Silent Night and Joy to the World that Dr. Smallwood used to bring the audience together, inviting everyone to raise their voices together in celebration.

There is something so perfect, a sense of common purpose in the delights and burdens of life, that comes as 200 voices are raised at once in song. It can only be experienced by being a part of it; no recording, no online video—nothing can match that marvelous, joyous feeling of a shared human experience that comes from lifting our voices in song and singing to the joy of the season.

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