Charleston has always had a strong church choral tradition.

But communal singing standards began an abrupt upswing with the arrival in 1997 of Robert Taylor.

After assuming direction of the College of Charleston’s choral program, he soon took charge of the Charleston Symphony Chorus (I’m a former member) and founded the Taylor Festival Choir, a semi-pro chamber group.

Local choral fans recognized what was happening, but the rest of the nation found out in 2005, when the college’s 40-voice concert choir performed at the national convention of the American Choral Directors’ Association (ACDA), where an invitation is proof positive a choir has attained big-league status. By all accounts, it was the belle of the ball.

While the ACDA accommodates all kinds of choirs, from children’s ensembles to professional outfits, the need arose for a national entity that stuck to the college scene. Enter the National Collegiate Choral Organization (ACCO) whose annual convention quickly attained a similar level of prestige.

And, even as this article goes to press, the Concert Choir (after tour stops in Rock Hill and Louisville) will be in Cincinnati, warming up for its appearance at this year’s ACCO convention.

As with the ACDA, it’s not a competition, but just being there means you’re one of the very best. So, our gifted young CofC singers have earned national attention twice, and in just four years. To boot, Taylor’s Festival Choir, with two terrific major-label CD releases, will appear at the ACDA’s next convention in 2009, in the professional chamber choir category.

I’ve been listening joyfully to some of these fabulous young singers for four years or more, since they were freshmen. Several are now grad students. This core of solid veterans has ensured the group’s consistent quality over the years.

Wonderful new singers are drawn to the college every year — and the choir just keeps getting better and better. Several freshmen I chatted with after their concert last Thursday at the Cathedral Church of St. Luke & St. Paul still feel a bit stunned to have been suddenly thrust into such prominence.

Little League one day, World Series the next.

Speaking of their concert, it was simply sublime. Since the Concert Choir ran only their 25-minute ACCO program, Taylor filled out the evening with several numbers from the CofC Madrigal Singers — 16 of the Concert Choir’s finest. After silky-smooth renditions of two Renaissance-era gems, they delivered a pair of appealing pieces slated for their upcoming Yuletide Madrigal Feast, one of Charleston’s most fun and festive holiday celebrations.

Then came the main fare, beginning with “Like as the Hart,” by Herbert Howells. It’s a limpid Anglican marvel that tests a choir’s dynamic subtlety and purity of tone. And, like angels, they sounded heavenly. Among the four striking movements of Finnish master Einojuhani Rautavaara’s difficult Suite de Lorca, “El Grito (The Scream)” was the most impressive, with the ladies’ smooth glissandi swooping into gritty, chilling tone clusters.

György Ligeti’s bustling “Reggel (Morning)” was full of musical mimicry, with its tricky vocal echoes of bells and even a rooster. Eric Whitacre’s “Sleep” is a gentle tone-painting evoking slumber, and our singers delivered it with needlepoint intonation as well as warm, tonal sweetness.

Ending the concert with a flourish were two rousing sacred numbers from emerging Irish sensation Michael McGlynn called “Media Vita” and “Christus Resurgens” that had something of a pagan, Celtic air to them.

If you weren’t part of their substantial, stunned audience, I’m sorry for you — they’re that good. Be there next time, and discover for yourselves why they’ve put Charleston on the national choral map.

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