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Washington Ballet's 'Nutcracker' and Other Holiday Performances

Elizabeth Gaither and Jaret Nelson were the Snow Queen and King in the Washington Ballet's
Elizabeth Gaither and Jaret Nelson were the Snow Queen and King in the Washington Ballet's "The Nutcracker." (By Carol Pratt)
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Allison Hampton and Linn Barnes, longtime purveyors of the pleasures of Celtic music, were back at Georgetown's Dumbarton Church on Saturday for their annual seasonal contribution to the Dumbarton Concert Series. Hampton, playing the Celtic harp, and Barnes, on a variety of guitars and banjos and the uilleann pipes, were joined by flutist Joseph Cunliffe, percussionist Steve Bloom and narrator Robert Aubry Davis, who read from a number of Welsh and British poets.

Surprisingly, it was a low-key (and, at times, low-energy) affair. Being a Celtic music lover, willing to travel some distance to hear a fiddle or a bodhran played well, I expect that the variations on familiar tunes will arise from the inspiration of the moment (or seem to); that the musicians will be making music collaboratively, not just side-by-side; and that they will be playing as much for each other as for their audience. It may be that this Celtic Consort (the name these musicians assembled under) is so well rehearsed and expert at their instruments that spontaneity has been scrubbed from their performance and replaced by cool, but the musicians seemed to be having fun together only in Barnes's own "Lord Ronan's Return" and the wild version of "Deck the Halls."

Not everything on the program was of Celtic extraction. Barnes strapped himself into a set of uilleann pipes (Irish bagpipes) for a delicate go, with Cunliffe on an Irish whistle, in a set of familiar dances by the 16th-century Flemish composer Tielman Susato and a couple of anonymous early Italians. "Christmas Suite," full of gauzy bells, ended the afternoon in a fuzz of New Age good feeling.

-- Joan Reinthaler

'LESSONS AND CAROLS'

Fielding a "Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols" is a little like reading from a fill-in-the-blank script. The format is the creation of the chapel of King's College, Cambridge -- a procession, scriptural readings offered by members of the community from the youngest to the most eminent and, of course, carols, liberally interspersed. The King's College service has been broadcast worldwide for the past 8o years.

The version offered at the University of Maryland's Memorial Chapel on Friday was happily in this tradition. The readings were those used in the original 1918 service, with the first, a lengthy paragraph from Genesis, read seamlessly by a member of the Maryland Boy Choir and the last, from John I, read by William Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland. The carols were an agreeable mix of the old (Byrd, Schuetz, Praetorius and Tschesnokoff) and the new (Whitacre, Niedmann and Biebl).

What set this performance apart was the number of different choruses that participated and the attention to logistics that kept things flowing smoothly. The Maryland Boy Choir proceeded to the traditional "Once in Royal David's City," with the first verse assigned to soloist Andrew Skinner, who sang it beautifully and ended it spot on pitch. The boys all sat in the front pews. Around the balcony were the university's Men's Chorus, Women's Chorus, MaennerMusik (a small men's ensemble) and the Palestrina Choir, these two last student-led. None of these groups enjoys the spotlight that the more famous University Chorus has attracted, but, in particular, both the Men's and the Women's Choruses sang with gorgeous tone, rich sonority and outstanding diction.

The men's conductor, Stephen Holmes (who also conducts the boys), and the women's conductor, Timothy Reno, did a fine job here. Organist Paul Hardy held things together comfortably and offered a beautifully articulated prelude program.


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