Fund-raising efforts on WETA-TV tonight will be delightfully interrupted by a seasonal special titled "Jessye Norman's Christmas Symphony" (10:30 p.m., Channel 26). Taped in England's Ely Cathedral, the program includes most of the familiar English carols as well as a new one and a new "Amen," both specially composed for Norman and both quite good.
Norman has one of the most extraordinary voices of our time, and she uses it beautifully on material that ranges from "O Come, Emmanuel" and "Silent Night" to "The Holly and the Ivy." The use of the word "symphony" in the program's title alludes to the fact that the evening's music is divided, like a traditional symphony, into four "movements" of varying mood and pace. Appropriately, in view of the cathedral setting, the emphasis is on religious carols in three of the four segments, with only the second movement focusing on holly, mistletoe, winter scenery and similar material. Nowhere, fortunately, is there any reference to reindeer, red-nosed or otherwise.
Jessye Norman's voice needs no help, but the producers have assembled a massive cast of supporters for her vocalizing, including the Chorus of Ely Cathedral, the Vocal Arts Chorus, the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and the American Boychoir, apparently shipped over to England for the occasion. Robert DeCormier keeps them all nicely together.
When the cameras are not focusing on Norman, the faces of choral singers, the hands of a harpist or a lutanist, they find material to charm the eye in the cathedral's vast, Gothic-arched spaces and lofty spires. Or they pan across the cathedral's stained glass for images to reinforce the music's themes. The show is beautifully produced. Its appearance in November may be rushing the season a bit, but it should charm anyone who loves the traditional music of Christmas, and it is well calculated to inspire the kind of generosity the station is looking for in this fund-raising season.