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Choral Arts Society's Christmas Program Takes a Look South

By Grace Jean
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, December 19, 2005

The Choral Arts Society of Washington presented a richly varied and dynamic Christmas concert Saturday afternoon at the Kennedy Center's Concert Hall, featuring music from South America, a timpani-centric world premiere and some unusual spins on familiar carols.

Artistic director Norman Scribner commanded the chorus's 200 voices so that they alternately filled the hall with joyous singing, hovered onstage mysteriously with the softest of hums, or bounded evenly everywhere in between. They were supported warmly by the society's orchestra and National Symphony Orchestra organist William Neil.

In preparation for James Grant's "Eja! Eja!," four kettledrums were rolled to center stage, where timpanist Fred Begun took his place. Commissioned by the group last year to commemorate its 40th-anniversary season and to celebrate Begun's retirement from the NSO, the work explores numerous vocal and instrumental textures and sonorities through an amalgamation of Latin and English texts, including Alfred Lord Tennyson's "In Memoriam, XXX."

From the sustained, ethereal "ooo" in the women's voices to the vibrant, driving "Lord of the Rings"-like rhythms, Grant's composition premiered with spirited fire. Soloist Arianna Zukerman's radiant soprano added a silvery sheen to the work, but fell short of the emotional power projected by the voices behind her. Begun, who clearly enjoyed having the spotlight, performed with equal amounts of intensity and pleasure.

Argentina's Ariel Ramirez wrote a six-movement Christmas cantata, "Navidad Nuestra," and a setting of the Mass, "Misa Criolla," based upon his country's folk idioms. In selections from both works, the society featured soloists Manuel Melendez, Jose Sacin and Pablo Talamante, who sang admirably but were sometimes difficult to hear over the full chorus.

Sacin gave a fine performance in the lyrical "El Nacimiento" ("The Nativity"). Augmented by three guitarists and an array of percussion, the condensed orchestra provided a Latin beat that many tapping feet found difficult to resist.

The chorus blended harmonies in Richard Wayne Dirksen's "Nowell Sing We" as tenderly as it sang "Beneath the Stars," penned by the chorus's own bass John Pickard. In Mark Riese's arrangement of "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" the choristers pursued the ostinato rhythms dramatically. They persevered through Bach's "Jauchzet Gott in Allen Landen," which unfortunately was plagued by instrumental intonation problems.

As per tradition, Scribner invited the audience to sing along during a few carols. The ad hoc congregation responded sensitively to his dynamics and even sang a verse of "Silent Night" in Portuguese. If you missed out, you can join the fun on Friday at 1:30 p.m.

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