Most of the time when Rhiannon Giddens is singing with her old-time stringband Carolina Chocolate Drops, you'd never know that she has a classical background. But she started out as an opera singer at Oberlin College, and she flashed some of those chops onstage Friday night at the North Carolina Symphony’s Holiday Pops show at Meymandi Concert Hall. She did a lovely star turn on "O Holy Night," which was the first high point of the evening.
Still, that was just a warm-up for the main event, the symphonic preview of "The Gathering" -- Laurelyn Dossett's holiday song cycle about the ups, downs, joys, tears and fears of holiday-season family get-togethers. It was truly lovely, with composer Aaron Grad's Americana-by-way-of-Aaron-Copland arrangements meshing perfectly with the stringband quartet of Dossett, Giddens, banjo player Joe Newberry and mandolin man Mike Compton.
On the outro to the high-spirited "Redbird," Giddens kicked off her high heels to dance and Newberry (a self-described "recovering clogger") was right there with her to do an impressive little soft-shoe number. All I've got to say is it was a far better way to kick off the holidays than a midnight Black Friday sale. "The Gathering" also plays two shows on Saturday, and it's well worth checking out. Hope they will perform it beyond this weekend, too.