Concerts of Christmas music draw large audiences for a great many reasons -- tradition, nostalgia and familiarity among them -- but rarely because they are interesting. On Saturday and Sunday at the Washington Cathedral, the Cathedral Choral Society, assisted by the Cathedral Choir of Men and Boys and a brass quintet, broke with tradition and offered a truly interesting program: Christmas music by local composers. A thread of tradition was evident, but what shone through with particular splendor was the wealth of inventiveness and musical imagination all around.
Many of the composers represented have been intimately associated with the cathedral itself: David Koehring, who was an assistant organist and choirmaster in the '60s, and Robert Lehman, who held that same position several years ago; Leo Sowerbery, who directed the College of Church Musicians until his death in 1968. Of course there was music by Edgar Priest, the cathedral's first organist and choirmaster; Paul Callaway, founder and director of the Choral Society and cathedral organist and choirmaster from 1939 to 1977; Richard Wayne Dirksen, who has served as cathedral organist and choirmaster, Choral Society director, canon precentor and other positions too numerous to mention; and Douglas Major, the current cathedral organist and choirmaster. There was also music by Charles Callahan, Leo Nestor, Mark Fax, R. Dean Shure, Thomas Kerr, Bertha Donahue, Russell Woollen and Paul Hume.
The Choral Society, under the sure direction of J. Reilly Lewis, did its best singing in its most difficult assignment -- Woollen's excellent "Nativitie." Here the pitch was right on target, the diction was clear and the sound was beautifully balanced. Nestor's "A Child Is Born" and Donahue's "Make We Joy" were also ideally suited to the chorus's strengths and to the cathedral's acoustics.
The Choir of Men and Boys was particularly impressive in Dirksen's well-put-together "Anthem," and with Dirksen on the podium, the concert ended with the massed forces of that choir and the Choral Society in a well-focused and rhythmically assured performance of his "Welcome All Wonders."