From Choral Arts, a Czech Christmas

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

To put on a spectacular evening of Christmas music, the Choral Arts Society of Washington doesn't need Santa, fake snow or knockoff Rockettes. No, all these capable singers need -- besides an organ and orchestra -- is Petr Kolar, Czech ambassador and stand-up comic.

Each December, Choral Arts performs carols from another country at the Kennedy Center. When artistic director Norman Scribner chose the Czech Republic, he was likely tantalized by the "Zither Carol," "Rock-A-Bye, Baby Jesus" and other sacred works of Czech origin. He could not have known that Kolar, serving as honorary host, would upstage an outstanding soprano.

Monday evening's concert opened with the 190-member choir processing down the Concert Hall aisles to the 12th-century strains of "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel." Scribner consistently chose arrangements that flattered his forces, including several that promoted a lively exchange between the singers, soloists and organ. Soprano Kelley Nassief threw in an awkward phrase or two, but compensated by adapting her warm, fluid voice to suit the mood of each song.

The audience was very much in the spirit by the time Kolar came out to lead "Silent Night" in Czech. "I never taught a great crowd," he said, sounding at once debonair and self-deprecating. "Actually, I never taught Czech." The ambassador continued cracking jokes the whole way through his repeat-after-me rehearsal. He kept the microphone for a trial run and -- surprise -- couldn't stay on pitch to save his life. "Do you have any criticisms for me?" he asked Scribner. All the conductor could do was laugh: The worst performance of the evening had brought down the house.

This program repeats Saturday and Christmas Eve.

-- Rebecca J. Ritzel

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