Monday, December 17, 2007

Cathedral Choral Society

The Cathedral Choral Society's annual "Joy of Christmas" concert Friday came with an engaging twist this year. As part of the Washington National Cathedral's ongoing centenary celebration, a dozen teenagers from the United Voices Scandinavian Youth Choir (conducted by Lena Bj¿rk-Franz¿n) sang a group of heady folk carols for Luciadag, the Swedish holiday honoring the ancient Sicilian martyr Saint Lucia as a symbolic giver of light during the long nights of northern winters. As national custom dictates, one young singer wore a crown of lighted candles on her head -- accompanied by other youngsters carrying candles and the boys sporting festive hats -- all this while they sang vibrant Swedish folk carols, including the lusty "Jul, Jul, Stralande Jul" ("Yule, Yule, Shining Yule").

Choral Society Music Director J. Reilly Lewis conducted his singers in a magnificent succession of carols and hymns, many of these perfectly designed (in the centuries-old English tradition) to reverberate mystically from the farthest reaches of massive stone cathedrals. Washington's cathedral has a new platform that positions performers higher than allowed by the previous acoustic setting of the building. On Friday (from the ninth row) the voices sounded more distinct and articulated than before. To acknowledge the centenary, most of Friday's yuletide program was composed by musicians who at some time since 1907 were significantly involved professionally with the cathedral. Perhaps most familiar from recent decades were, to name a few, Paul Callaway (the Choral Society's founder and longtime director), Leo Sowerby and Richard Wayne Dirksen.

The Advent program also included the premiere of Gwyneth Walker's moving anthem "My Beloved Son," a Choral Society commission. Between the choral offerings, Lewis led a zesty audience sing-in of well-known carols; carillonneur Edward M. Nassor and the Washington Symphonic Brass played reverberant seasonal preludes to the choir's solemn processional; and Scott Dettra confirmed how gloriously symphonic the cathedral organ can sound.

-- Cecelia Porter

Washington Chorus

Choruses can choose novel carols to sing or select unusual arrangements of old chestnuts to differentiate their Christmas programs from the parade of familiar holiday classics that marches unceasingly throughout this month. Saturday afternoon in the Kennedy Center's Concert Hall, the Washington Chorus did a little bit of both, to refreshing and festive effect.

Guest conductor Eric Stark had the chorus singing crisply and brightly and led his charges through tricky rhythms in a couple of arrangements. Jackson Berkey gave a little kick to "Il Est N¿, le Divin Enfant" by adding the snaky snare drum rhythm from Ravel's "Bolero," and funky congas drove the joyous outbursts in Kurt Knecht's arrangement of "Go Tell It on the Mountain."

Three contemporary composers provided carols that stacked up well with the classics. Stephen Paulus used modal harmonies to give an ancient feel to his lushly contemplative "A Savior From on High." The chorus delivered its most intense singing of the afternoon in Morten Lauridsen's "O Nata Lux," its rich, close harmonies shimmering. And the martial brass and drums of Glenn Rudolph's gripping "The Dream Isaiah Saw" were ultimately quelled by the chorus's impassioned plea for peace.

After intermission, Arlington's H-B Woodlawn Chamber Singers performed a few numbers under their director, Jeffrey Benson, including a fine-textured "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming" and a vigorous, precise reading of Geronimo Gonzalez's "Serenissima Una Noche." The group then joined the chorus for the concert's final numbers, including a lovely version of Franz Biebl's "Ave Maria."

The program will be repeated Friday at the Music Center at Strathmore and Saturday at the Kennedy Center.

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