The Christmas season is the time to be steeped in sound, and no one offers a more tasteful holiday immersion than Norman Scribner and his Choral Arts Society, as their concert last night testified.
They were performing with members of the National Symphony in a Kennedy Center whose halls were handsomely decked. A Christmas tree covered in red bows graced the entrance to the concert hall, and the stage itself was bordered in poinsettia plants. From the first tier, a brass choir played a few pre-concert carols and membrs of the audience hummed along. Families with little girls in velveteen jumpers and little boys looking uncomfortably neat were very much in evidence.
Almost every Christmas program begins with a processional in which the chorus enters singing from the back of the hall. Scribner's choice of a 14th-century chant sung in unison and accompanied by a simple drum beat was stunning. The purity and strength of the music was deeply moving.
The glory of the program was a setting of Psalm 150 by the 17th-century German composer Heinrich Shutz.Its expressive, harmonies and stirring contrasts of smaller groups against the full chorus created highly dramatic effects that were beautifully caught by the chorus. This large body of singers performs with the responsiveness and dynamic flexibility of a chamber ensemble, and Scribner was able to achieve some wondrously subtle effects.
The major work of the evening was the first cantata from Bach's "Christmas Oratorio," which received a capable, if not compelling, performance. Among the soloists, only tenor Theodore Morrision projected the music with a satisfying fullness of expression and voice. Mezzo Ann Zibelman's contributions were vocally sound but emotionally restrained, and bass Reginald Evans lacked both rhythmic and stylistic focus.
The program ended, as any proper Christmas musical offering should, with participation in carols by the audience, which exhibited both a festive spirit and some remarkably good voices.
The performance will be repeated today at 8:30 p.m. and tomorrow at 3 p.m.