Although the Paul Hill Chorale resembles a large, happy family devoted to finely tuned musicmaking, its members were not averse to a bit of friendly competition among themselves Tuesday night at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. The women and men each had a chance at the spotlight, and if the women shone a little brighter it was because they had Benjamin Britten's genius on their side.
Offering a program devoted to Christmas music of the British Isles, director Paul Hill led the men in a charming rendition of the Scottish lullaby "Balloo, Lammy." Then Hill joined five of the men to form an a cappella sextet that used musical arrangements made famous by the King's Singers. The sextet gave light, humorous performances of the "Somerset Wassail," "The Twelve Days of Christmas" and "Jingle Bells" -- complete with kazoos.
The women offered an exquisite interpretation of Britten's "Ceremony of Carols," a suite of 10 carols for treble voices and harp. They imbued "This Little Babe" with an intense sense of urgency and sang "There Is No Rose" with gentle beauty. Guest harpist Dotian Litton provided vibrant accompaniment.
All the singers, about 140, cooperated in a cappella arrangements of traditional carols, consistently producing a full, beautifully blended sound. Organist Sondra Proctor frequently joined the singers -- in Christopher Boodle's "Carol of the Six Christmas Bells" she adeptly exploited the organ's chime sonorities. In only one song did the organ and voices seem at odds with each other, and that was an arrangement of "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" in which the timing was somewhat problematic.