The Washington area enjoys a proliferation of fine choral groups, some ranking high nationally and internationally. Donald Richardson founded the Washington Women's Chorus in 1996, a step that added to the diversity of the local choral scene.

Among its goals, the group includes "concerts of the highest musical excellence" and "support for the composition of new works." Its Yuletide program Saturday at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Arlington ranged from a work by that omnipresent medieval abbess Hildegard von Bingen, a set of spiritual-like arrangements (two flaccid baubles by Katherine Dienes and Edith Borroff) and two Christmas staples of the choral repertoire: Vaughan Williams's Magnificat and Britten's ever-welcome "Ceremony of Carols."

The chorus fared best in the Britten, reproducing the chiming sonorities of a boys' choir. For the rest of the evening, the ensemble did not sound fully at ease with the music. Diction was indistinct, entrances were often tentative, and the texts, though differing widely, had a sameness resulting from missing inflections of tone quality and dynamics. In addition, Richardson hammered down the tactus (medieval beat) of von Bingen's spacious melodic line--as if trying to force it into modern measures--instead of letting it flow boundlessly into ecstasy. And why did he neglect the music of the myriad women composers whose first-rate pieces are rarely if ever performed?