A holiday treat from Washington Master Chorale

Rhianna Victoria Nissen - The Washington Master Chorale.

“A Winter’s Night,” the Washington Master Chorale’s holiday concert, veered away from the expected seasonal fare Sunday at Bethesda’s Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church. The group’s director, Thomas Colohan, instead chose a wintry mix of music we hear less often, crowning the program with the world premiere of Donald McCullough’s “When Christ Was Born,” eight settings of Middle English carol texts for chorus, soprano and baritone soloists and harp.

The program also included songs from the Middle Ages and on; Francis Poulenc’s engrossing “A Snowy Evening” from World War II, concealing the composer’s usual anti-establishment irreverence in favor of French patriotism; and Herbert Howells’s absorbing Anglican anthem “Long, Long Ago.” As a concession to the season, Colohan conducted two carol singalongs, engaging a spirited audience.

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The performance affirmed that the Washington Master Chorale belongs among the imposing assortment of high-ranking choruses in the area. Colohan’s singers are disciplined in every respect; confident in entrances and clear in diction, and they pay riveting attention to their conductor. The evening also marked impressive debuts by the chorale’s new assistant conductors, Rachel Carlson and C. Paul Heins.

Commissioned by the piece’s harpist, Marian Rian Hays, McCullough’s work is a skillfully wrought choral setting. It was beautifully performed, including the fine baritone and soprano solos.

Although described by Colohan as the concert’s “centerpiece composed by a friend and colleague,” McCullough’s new piece suffers from sameness — from section to section and by comparison with other contemporary repertoire. With its emphasis on the harp, its treatment of divided choral sections and quite ordinary neoclassical harmonies and textures, McCullough leans dangerously close to Benjamin Britten’s “A Ceremony of Carols.”

Porter is a freelance writer.

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