The standard Christmas concert--which must include a processional, some audience caroling and "O Holy Night" sung by the biggest vocal gun in the house--seems very much a modern invention. It converts a place that is "sacred" in the High Art sense into a place that is Sacred in the old-fashioned religious sense. Like the shopping mall, which has supplanted snowy old-town streets with carolers and colorful small shops, the concert hall stands in once a year as a kind of ad hoc, collective church.
On Tuesday night, the Choral Arts Society of Washington gave a standard--but very high-quality--Christmas concert. All the ritualistic niceties were observed. The processional was well choreographed, with the singers arriving efficiently at their proper spots without too many repetitions of "Once in Royal David's City." The solo artist of the evening, mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves, sang Adolphe Adam's supernaturally beautiful "O Holy . . . etc.," a hybrid between the familiar carol and a professional-level one. Standard English carols were contrasted with lesser-known foreign ones, and there were two significant nods to the Renaissance and baroque Christmas production. It was all well balanced and logistically masterful.
But a teenage girl standing a few rows behind me with someone who may have been her father made a stark contrast to the festive surroundings. Slouch-shouldered and in jeans, she glanced furtively at the lyrics of "God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen" in the program book. Is it cool to sing carols with Dad? Alienation from Christmas begins young, and is as much a part of the season as full surrender to it.
For critics, the problem with Christmas concerts is that they mix two kinds of surrender: surrender to music as music, and surrender to music as an icon of the season. Simply put, one goes to review a musical program, and finds oneself reviewing the entire collective unconscious, which would prefer to stew happily in the warm subterranean depths of nostalgia and childhood.
To be honest, I went to hear Graves. It's the first time I've heard the mezzo-soprano, who seems to be Washington's designated Saint Cecilia, since arriving here. High hopes and expectations from her very fine recordings weren't fulfilled on Tuesday evening; much of what she sang seemed unengaged though often beautifully produced.
Graves's most substantial music on the program was a recitative and aria ("Prepare yourself, Zion") from Bach's Christmas Oratorio. Bach's recitatives (the musically condensed narrative lead-ins to arias) are as beautiful as the arias themselves. He manages to convey the impression of speaking without sacrificing lyrical expression. Sung well, Bach's recitatives cut through directly and searingly, to the emotional substance of the drama.
Graves approached the recitative as an apparent obligation, reserving her musical engagement for the flowing, longer lines of the aria. It was a lost opportunity.
A Spanish carol, "Hacia Belen va un borrico," was better, more deeply felt and naturally sung. And "O Holy Night" floated up ecstatically into the rafters. In other carol arrangements, she seemed glued to the music and it sounded tentative, as if she were still studying the map.
The chorus, conducted by the society's music director, Norman Scribner, bore the most responsibility of the evening. Richard Dirksen's 1949 "Chanticleer" is a curiously bumptious setting of a text that suggests more elongated, spiritually widening music, but the chorus sang its sharply marked and accented lines very well. Peter Philips's late-Tudor setting of "O Beatum et Sacrosanctum Diem" was nicely blended and balanced, though a bit more of the characteristically clarion sound of this music would have been welcome.
The Choral Arts Society Orchestra also got a solo moment, performing a movement selected from Tchaikovsky's 12-part "The Seasons." The "Troika" is labeled as November in the seasonal cycle, but winter begins early and lasts long in some parts of Russia. It is a modestly challenging work, and as close as Tchaikovsky came to the jingle-bells sound of Leroy Anderson's "Sleigh Ride." The orchestra made it a wild ride.