Correction to This Article
Earlier versions of the review about a "Joy of Christmas" presentation by the Cathedral Choral Society misspelled the surname of the Maret School Concert Choir director. He is James Erwin, not Irwin. This version has been corrected.

Monday, December 13, 2010; C03

Julianne Hough

Known for two victories on ABC's hugely popular "Dancing With the Stars," for landing the lead in the upcoming "Footloose" remake and for her May-December romance with Ryan Seacrest, 22-year-old Julianne Hough seems to treat her fledgling country music career as just an entertaining gig on the side.

The best part? Any possible controversy is just a cute anecdote to share, as she did during the "Acoustic Christmas Concert" presented by Baltimore's WPOC radio Friday night.

"This next song - funny story," she said by way of introducing her new single, "Is That So Wrong," in the middle of her 30-minute set at Cancun Cantina in Hanover. "I shot a music video for it . . . and [Country Music Television] kind of banned it."

Giggling, Hough shook her head and showed off her megawatt smile to the crowd of about 100 packed on the dance floor. "Apparently I was taking off too many clothes as I was dancing across my bedroom." She paused to let this sink in. "But I don't know - I kind of liked it."

Launching into the song, Hough's infectious, sugary voice (powerful as long as she doesn't try to hit any super-high notes) made a good case for her attempt to reboot her singing career. After some success with her debut self-titled album in 2008, which hit No. 1 on the Billboard country charts, and a holiday album soon after, there has been pretty much - literally - radio silence.

Except, of course, she's in movies now, and there's that tabloidtastic relationship with Seacrest.

"A lot of people have seen my relationships very publicly lately," Hough cooed to the crowd, letting the concept of "Ryan Seacrest" hang in the air. Then she turned serious. "But I don't think people know who I really am," she declared before belting out the slow song "Wildfire."

Still a dancer at heart, Hough shimmied her way through the set, which included "My Hallelujah Song," "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" and Sarah Buxton's "Love Is a Trip." She took breaks from the microphone to wriggle around and dance next to her lone backup guitar player. Although billed as the main event, Hough got roughly the same amount of stage time as the two opening acts, Ashley Gearing and Craig Campbell. But there may have been a reason for it - even Hough admitted that her music library isn't extensive.

"But I figured I should sing something you know," she said before performing her most popular tune (bouncy, ultra-catchy "That Song in My Head") for those in the audience, who were doing their best to listen attentively, despite extremely loud chatter from other bar patrons.

Feeling the need to plug something, Hough announced that an upcoming album is in the works but had no idea when it would arrive - she tossed out the guess of "maybe sometime next year."

- Emily Yahr

Folger Consort with the Tallis Scholars

Merry old England was the geographical nexus of the Renaissance Christmas concerts, performed by the Folger Consort with the Tallis Scholars over the weekend at Georgetown University's Gaston Hall.

Old, certainly, but merry? Not exactly. Much of the music presented - especially selections sung by the revered Tallis Scholars - was strikingly sober, perhaps indicative of Advent, typically a time of contemplation in the weeks before Christmas.

A wide range of vaguely seasonal music was on display. Complex, a cappella tapestries by the likes of John Taverner mingled with rustic, instrumental dances.

Chalk it up to jet lag, or the deadened acoustics of a packed hall, but the Tallis Scholars' characteristically precise sound faltered in the first half of Friday night's concert. The group has always prided itself on a bright, soprano-heavy top end, but in Taverner's multi-part "Gaude plurimum," the sopranos overpowered their colleagues, upsetting the delicate balance.

Fortunately, much of the Tallis Scholars' signature transparent but tight blend reappeared after intermission. In William Byrd's "Nunc dimittis," voice parts dovetailed seamlessly as one melodic line folded into the next.

The pious tone of antiphons and church anthems was lightened by the Consort's instrumental selections. The jaunty "Mulliner Book Dances" and "Hugh Ashton's Maske" offered fluid playing by Mary Springfels on the smallest member of the viol family and Tom Zajac's eccentric arsenal of recorders and bagpipe.

The two ensembles joined forces for six pieces, the best of which capped the evening with two settings of "Hosanna to the Son of David" - one by Orlando Gibbons; the other, Thomas Weelkes. By this time, the Tallis singers were near top form, with basses soaring to open the Weelkes. The concluding, ecstatic full cries of "Hosanna in excelsis Deo" virtually rocked the house.

While introducing a William Billings encore, director Peter Phillips (founder of the Tallis Scholars in 1973) mentioned it was exactly 25 years ago that his group last played with the Consort. Let's hope another reunion doesn't take that long.

- Tom Huizenga

Cathedral Choral Society

Positive responses to music director J. Reilly Lewis's "Joy of Christmas" programs with his Cathedral Choral Society have become almost as much a tradition of the season as the concerts.

But, as Saturday's annual presentation proved again, these are the smartest, least-hackneyed and most musically satisfying of the plentiful choral events on offer in the Washington area each December.

The cathedral, of course, always adds powerfully to the atmospherics at work - whether wrapping an evocative halo around the divided-chorus antiphony in Elizabeth Poston's "Jesus Christ the Apple Tree" during Saturday's opening Advent wreath procession, or providing crisp reverberation to the athletically virtuosic brass-quintet playing from members of the Washington Symphonic Brass.

But the fresh repertoire on offer brought comparable rewards, with a mix of rarely heard material from Felix Mendelssohn and 16th-century composer Jacob Handl, and lovely contemporary pieces by Stephen Caracciolo, Alexander L'Estrange, Frank La Rocca and Richard Wayne Dirksen.

The premiere of a newly commissioned carol, "The Nine Gifts" by Robert Chilcott, revealed a warmly consonant charmer. But there was challenging pungency in the torrential onslaught of Adolphus Hailstork's Toccata on "Veni Emmanuel," played with great verve by organist Todd Fickley. Even that tired chestnut of Christmas choral concerts, the guest appearance by a high school chorus, was elevated here by the pure tone, rich blend and superior musicianship of the Maret School Concert Choir, which, under James Erwin's sensitive baton, more than held its own against the rarefied beauty of the Cathedral Choral Society.

The program will be repeated in the airy, if more secular, acoustics of Strathmore Hall on Dec. 20.

- Joe Banno


N'Dambi paraded defiant optimism through much of her sizzling show at the Black Cat on Friday night. One of her most transfixing moments was her "Ode to Nina," a powerful song, from her 2001 disc, "Tunin Up and Cosignin," about a weary woman comforting her no-good man of his trifling ways.

"I ain't complaining/I'm just tired," N'Dambi belted, filling the sentiments with equal parts sass and sadness before the end of verse, "of your comings/your goings/your leavings/your stayings." Inspired by the legendary Nina Simone, the song indeed saw N'Dambi channeling the late heroine's knack for "straight from the hip" poetry as she fully embodied the rage of a protagonist.

After a rapturous applause from the half-packed yet dedicated house, N'Dambi delivered "Can't Hardly Wait," another ode to an amorous deadbeat, from her latest 2009 disc, "Pink Elephant." Addressing a man who spends all her money but spends no quality time with her, N'Dambi sang of a woman stuck in a toxic relationship who wants to leave, yet who still clings on.

Fronting a tight six-piece band, the sylphlike singer with the auburn-tinted hair appropriately rocked a look similar to Tina Turner's character Aunty Entity from the 1985 sci-fi flick, "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome," only sexier. But for all the tough-girl attitude that she projected through her songs, N'Dambi balanced it with a sweet Southern charm that signals her Dallas upbringing. She possesses a supple, raspy voice, capable of bellowing chesty alto notes, then rising to a crackling soprano. She excelled at evoking southern R&B songstresses such as Ann Peebles, Betty Wright and Denise LaSalle but without the throwback contrivance associated with retro-soul.

Still navigating slightly below mainstream R&B's radar for more than a decade, N'Dambi continues to get mileage out her now-classic 1999 debut, "Little Lost Girl Blues." The audience showered her with enthusiasm when she rendered that album's bittersweet "Lonely Woman," a lament dedicated to her late Aunt Eva, who lived an unfulfilled life in constant martyrdom.

She packed another emotional wallop with the rueful "What's Wrong With You," also from that album.

And although "Pink Elephant" hardly got the attention that it deserved and that could have made N'Dambi more of a household name, her devoted fans cheered when she charged into some of its material such as the misty-eyed "Nobody Jones," the sensual "Ooo Baby" and the sobering, hard-hitter "L.I.E.," on which N'Dambi sang of a married man, dangerously leading a double life.

- John Murph

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