Review: Choral Arts Society Christmas concert at the Kennedy Center

December 20, 2011

Norman Scribner, who has led the Choral Arts Society of Washington since founding it in 1965, has set the date of his retirement for next summer. Scribner’s leadership of this mammoth volunteer choir has certainly been consistent. The ensemble’s current season, offered in tribute to Scribner, is recapitulating his legacy down to the annual Christmas concert, heard Monday night.

Many people love concerts of Christmas music, certainly enough to fill most of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. Much of the program was aimed at the group’s strength, which is full-bodied, strongly articulated singing, an ethos put clearly into words by Scribner when he instructed the audience for the inevitable carol singalongs with the gruff words, “Stand up and sing. LOUD.” This was true of both the rather unsubtle rendition of “Jauchzet, Frohlocket!,” from Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio,” and a lusty waltz scene from Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin,” made forceful by the sheer number of singers.

The Russian focus of the program included competent guest performances by the Ural Philharmonic Orchestra and a Russian mezzo-soprano, Irina Shishkova, all brought to Washington through the generosity of the Russian ambassador. With the Russians came two excerpts of a “Christmas Oratorio” recently composed by Orthodox Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev, banal music that seemed the Russian equivalent of the cheesy carol arrangements by John Rutter, which could be the soundtrack for a documentary about the commercialization of Christmas.

This concert will be repeated on Wednesday and Saturday. The Saturday concert will include a bonus performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade” by the Ural Philharmonic.

Downey is a freelance writer.


Mezzo-soprano Irina Shishkova. (Courtesy of The Embassy of the Russian Federation )
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