No single event has inspired so much music of extraordinary quality as Christmas, and no single concert seems to capture so much of that quality as the annual presentation by the Choral Arts Society. Under the direction of its founder, Norman Scribner, the Society filled the Kennedy Center's Concert Hall this past weekend with appropriately angelic tones that recalled in many ways the warmest message of Christmas -- its promise of harmony for humankind.
At the center of the concert was the second part of Bach's "Christmas Oratorio," the section that recounts the adventures of the shepherds. Scribner fashioned a sensitive reading of the score, encouraging from the chorus a perfectly blended sound that took on a special glow in "Ehre sie Gott."
Frederick Urrey, who stepped in at virtually the last moment for the ailing tenor soloist, handled his assignments with considerable skill, while alto Adelle Nicholson did not quite make the delicate "Schlafe, mein Liebster" as effective as it can be. Organist Charles Callahan, who was in great form throughout the program, and members of the National Symphony offered generally solid support.
From Rachmaninoff's "Vespers," Scribner chose the "Magnificat" and "Nunc Dimittis," among the most ethereal choral music ever written, and his singers luxuriated in its rich textures. Along with three unfamiliar English pieces, the rarely heard "Vespers" helped to give the concert its uniqueness and depth, for which the audience was able to demonstrate its appreciation with some fine singing of its own in the concluding traditional carols.