A Washington Chorus Concert To Warm Many a Heart

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 18, 2006

The Washington Chorus called to mind some ghosts of Christmas Past on Saturday afternoon -- of long-ago days when Decembers were cold and cheeks would redden healthily in the short walk up the hill to the Kennedy Center, when listeners of any faith (or of none) would feel not in the least self-conscious about joining in with the "Hallelujah!" Chorus from Handel's "Messiah" and Mendelssohn's "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing."

It was an affectionate and sentimental occasion, the first of three final concerts Robert Shafer will conduct in his farewell to the chorus -- formerly the Oratorio Society of Washington -- to which he has given 35 years. Yet he spoke of having "another 25 years left of musicmaking" in him, and he promised that he would "see us again soon."

(Some members of the Washington Chorus are known to be unhappy over how Shafer was dismissed last fall. Rumors of a new ensemble abound, although nobody will yet speak on the record.)

The program itself was made up of seasonal favorites ("Silent Night," "Adeste Fideles" and "O Holy Night!"), some beautiful and brassy music from the Renaissance and a smattering of effectively crafted works from British composers (Ralph Vaughan Williams's "O Clap Your Hands" and Harold Darke's "In the Bleak Midwinter"). There was a tribute to music in our local schools when Jessica Lardin led the Westfield High School Chamber Singers in renditions of "Deck the Halls" and an "African Noel" arranged by Andre Thomas and accompanied by some spirited drumming.

It was announced that the afternoon's soloist, tenor Carl Tanner, was suffering from a virus and would forgo Cesar Franck's rapt, ecstatic but terrifically difficult "Panis Angelicus" -- but that he otherwise would fulfill his duties. He did so, but uncomfortably and with the aid of amplification. Tanner wins points for his courage and diligence, but he has sung much better in the past and no doubt will do so again.

The program (which will be repeated Thursday night at the Music Center at Strathmore and Saturday afternoon at the Kennedy Center) is well worth attending. Despite some less than spot-on singing and playing, it captures that sense of mystery, inner warmth and glad-heartedness, transcending theological boundaries, that is the essence of the season.

As the saying goes, it not only put the "Christ" back in Christmas, but also reaffirmed the "soul" in solstice.

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