Few images are more Christmasy than the sight of bundled-up, rosy-cheeked people singing carols in a snowfall. But carols have been around since long before Santa Claus or even Hallmark. Emphasizing the music's pre-Christian roots, La Rondinella gave a fascinatingly varied and somewhat offbeat Christmas concert Sunday at All Souls Episcopal Church in Woodley Park.
The carol began its long life as a medieval French round dance performed at ancient celebrations of the winter solstice, rituals that later merged with Christmas. Square-cut, symmetrical songs from medieval and Renaissance England formed the bulk of Sunday's program. With gentle, rollicking carols such as "The Holly and the Ivy" and "In Praise of Christmas," La Rondinella reminded us that these tunes were made for dancing. Contributing to the momentum were three excellent multi-instrumentalists: Tina Chancey on bowed strings, Paul Bensel on recorder, shawm and crumhorn, and La Rondinella's Howard Bass on lute and melodeon.
Songs that stress the personal over the institutional side of Christmas gave a unique slant to this program. Most, like "Hush My Babe" and the American traditional song "A Christmas Song for Gretchen," were laden with intimate images of the manger scene, except for the pointedly anti-Protestant 17th-century tune "Christmas Is My Name," which crackles with bitterness. Besides that song and the new dimension it added to the holiday's meaning, tenor Richard Craig's magnificent reading of the Kentucky traditional ballad "Shepherds Rejoice" was one of the highlights of the afternoon. Unfortunately, he was the only one of the four vocalists who seemed at home in the many periods and styles covered in the concert. Barbara Hollinshead has a lovely voice, but was shaky (and sometimes nonexistent) in the upper registers. For the most part, the singers presented unfinished work.