Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Master Chorale

Assembling a choral Christmas concert can be a tricky balancing act. What's the most satisfying ratio of sugary pop chestnuts to venerable old carols? Should orchestrations conjure thoughts of High Mass or Radio City Music Hall? And what to do about those singalongs?

Conductor Donald McCullough's Master Chorale of Washington, which performed its "Christmas Candlelight Concert" at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on Sunday, tends to get the formula right every December. Treacle is kept to a minimum, sturdy old favorites are reliably in evidence (that glorious soprano descant in David Willcocks's arrangement of "O Come All Ye Faithful" sent its accustomed chills down the spine) and recent works -- like Sunday's selections by Conrad Susa and Stephen Paulus -- catch the ear in fresh ways.

Throughout the program, McCullough (relieved by Assistant Conductor Daniel Ozment in two carols) drew warm sound and committed phrasing from the large chorus and from the entire audience in, yes, a notably robust singalong. Kudos to pure-voiced soprano Melissa Coombs in "Once in Royal David's City" and the octet of Chorale soloists in "Hallelu." A crackerjack ensemble of brass, percussion, harp, organ and piano lent further distinction to the musicmaking, and the chorus's candlelit processions in and out of a truly darkened auditorium were keenly evocative.

The program will be repeated Saturday.

-- Joe Banno

Children's Chorus of Washington

It is no exaggeration to say the Children's Chorus of Washington, a striking coed group directed by Joan Gregoryk, can stand with such sterling young groups as today's most celebrated boys' choirs, even the notable ones in Europe.

On Sunday the Children's Chorus gave a holiday concert at National City Christian Church, the program including both Christmas and Hanukkah music as well as international choral samples from French, English, Cameroonian and other traditions. The more than 150 singers range from elementary students to high-schoolers. The group is divided, largely by age, into treble, concert and bel canto choruses. The three also sometimes combine.

Perhaps most noteworthy for the young voices is their clear, vibrant head tone, which Gregoryk has carefully nurtured. Remarkably, she has done this (even in the voluminous fortes) while bypassing the snarly commercial chest tones that these children inevitably hear on their iPods.

Sunday's highlights included "Dashing Through the Snow" (a clever takeoff on "Jingle Bells"); Nurit Hirsh's "Bashana Haba-ah"; and arrangements of the French carol "Le Sommeil de l'Enfant Jesus," the Jewish folk song "Eliyahu Hanavi" and the Cameroonian traditional song "He Came Down." Also noteworthy was the opening solo, sung by a girl with the sweetness and vigor of a boy soprano. The concert ended with an audience singalong of the "Hallelujah" Chorus from Handel's "Messiah," an increasingly expected event, for better or worse. Washington Symphonic Brass lent further buoyancy and clarion brilliance to the afternoon. Donald Cotton was the able, responsive keyboard accompanist. (One minus: It was often difficult to follow who was singing what, given the tangled printed program that intermixed Sunday's list of songs with Saturday's different one. )

-- Cecelia Porter

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