City Choir of Washington at National Presbyterian Church

Monday, December 13, 2010; 6:15 PM

City Choir of Washington at National Presbyterian Church

Conductor Robert Shafer has nurtured a warm, full-bodied and forthright sound with his three-season-old City Choir of Washington. It's the kind of old-school choral tone that lent more than a whiff of plum pudding to the sing-along carols during the choir's "Music for Christmas" program at National Presbyterian Church on Sunday. Even a brief set of Renaissance and early Baroque pieces, which usually benefit from more ethereal treatment, satisfied here in a Victorian sort of way. Not everything on the program worked. Luther Henderson's arrangements of "What Child Is This?" and "Joy to the World," which incorporated gospel and Dixieland idioms, were performed in far too starched and polite a manner, lumbering along without a hint of swing (all the halfhearted, syncopated hand-clapping notwithstanding).

And an arrangement by Shafer of one of Mahler's "Ruckert Lieder" - reset to the Latin "Agnus Dei" text - diluted the composer's distinctive harmonies to the point of anonymity. But contemporary composer Z. Randall Stroope's feel-good, Bernstein-lite cantata "Hodie" was delivered with tremendous verve. And some sentimental Yuletide touches (a candle and handbell processional through the darkened church, a "Silent Night" sung by tots from the audience) were charming. Best of all was the guest ensemble, VoxHarmonia, a student chamber-choir from the Visual and Performing Arts Academy at Salem High School, Virginia Beach. Holding hands, leaning their bodies forward, and riveting wide-eyed attention on conductor Don Krudop, they sang with a rapt concentration and ravishing sound that took the breath away.

- Joe Banno

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