Cathedral Choral Society

Washington National Cathedral's acoustics may not serve all types of music. But the Cathedral Choral Society's "Joy of Christmas" concert Sunday exploited that vaulted space for all its evocative power.

The biting antiphonal volleys of the Washington Symphonic Brass, the perfumed tone wafting from the Cathedral Girl Choristers and Fairfax United Methodist Church's handbell ringers, the cannily gauged contrast of vocal weight among choirs placed at extreme ends of the nave: This was aural drama no concert hall could begin to compete with.

Conductor J. Reilly Lewis--assisted by conductors Trevor Ashbarry and Bruce Neswick, organist Eric Plutz and harpist Caroline Gregg--chose an uncliched program that alternated High Anglican splendor with more contemplative works. Twentieth-century composers predominated, most of them organists and choirmasters known to the liturgical community but not to the concertgoing public.

Of the longer works on the program, Daniel Pinkham's "Christmas Cantata" intrigued with its mix of post-romantic chromaticism, heartland Americana and dancing syncopations. Benjamin Britten's evergreen "Ceremony of Carols" was heard with female voices, as the composer originally intended. The Girl Choristers may have lacked the tang and penetrating attack of the best boy choirs, but the threads of pure silver they spun seemed to hang in the cathedral air long after their singing died away.

--Joe Banno

Washington Chorus

The opportunity to hear musicians perform as one instrument doesn't occur routinely, although concerts by the Washington Chorus would make you think so. Conductor Robert Shafer has his singers in the palms of his hands: All he appears to do with arms and baton is to intimate, and the voices respond instantly. But he does much more. For there is not only impeccable musicianship, but also keen stylistic perception.

Sunday the group brought a program of Christmas music to the Kennedy Center Concert Hall along with the amazing Walt Whitman (High School) Chamber Singers, a National Symphony brass octet, the organist William Neil and the audience (in singing the carols). Shafer's chorus soared with two motets merging the homogeneous flow of Renaissance choral writing with baroque polychoral style (the choir divided into distinct groups).

In "O Magnum Mysterium" of the Venetian Giovanni Gabrieli and "In dulci jubilo" of the younger German Samuel Scheidt, the chorus conveyed the high drama, distinct dialogue interplay and sonorous dimensions that both works share.

The Whitman singers, under Jeffrey Davidson, excelled in a set of Christmas- and Hanukah-oriented pieces. Tenor Michael Forest, one of the evening's soloists, was clearly not up to par, and his florid, spiritual-style "Sweet Little Jesus Boy" needed the swing and ebullient improv that gospel accompanists provide.--Cecelia Porter

Capitol Hill Chorale

Where the Capitol Hill Chorale scored points over more polished, professional rivals in its Christmas concert on Sunday was in the immediacy and human dimensions of the Lutheran Church of the Reformation.

This was music for the dozens, not the thousands, performed in a small, acoustically clear space. When the chorale processed in, the sound it made was enveloping. The brass quintet, which would have registered as atmospherically distant in a grander venue, had real punch. Even Taiwanese soprano Chieh-Mei Jamie Wu, with her modest lyric soprano, had a sizable sound in these surroundings.

The most striking music belonged to a substantial early work of Benjamin Britten's--his rarely heard "A Boy Was Born." A melancholy piece dwelling on Herod's slaughter of the innocents, this sequence of medieval text settings has an arresting theme-and- variations structure, and occupies a musical ground between the stark angularity of the composer's "St. Nicholas" and the rarefied charms of his "Ceremony of Carols." It would have benefited from a less approximate choral response, but it held a brooding fascination nonetheless.

The singing in general was characterized by tentative entrances and limitations in range and virtuosity. But under Jeffrey Watson's lovingly attentive baton, this aggregation of decent individual voices made a beautiful sound that was far greater than the sum of its parts.

--Joe Banno