Chanticleer

At George Mason U. So much Christmas music has been written through the centuries that it is possible to survey the history of vocal music from the middle ages to the present in a single Christmas concert. That's what Chanticleer did Friday night at George Mason University, with a level of polish, precision and erudition that defies criticism.

Seasonal visits by the San-Francisco-based 12-voice male choir are becoming a tradition at GMU's Center for the Arts, as the group's music director, Joseph Jennings, told the audience. The freshness of the material, the technical quality and depth of feeling in the singing explained why that audience was near-capacity. Most Christmas concerts are a return to old, beloved things. This one included some of that, but it was also a voyage of discovery.

There were familiar items on the program: "In Dulci Jubilo," "Wassail Song," "Coventry Carol" and "The Holly and the Ivy," to name a few. And some items have become identified with this group, such as Josquin's "Ave Maria" and the medieval Spanish "Riu, Riu, Chiu." But much of the program's joy lay in its surprises, particularly its exploration of seldom-heard English repertoire: "Mater Christi nobilis" and "Ecce quod natura" from the 14th century, Weelkes's "Gloria" and the modern arrangements of old carols by Ralph Vaughan Williams and David Willcocks.

But the highlight of the program came in two compositions by the contemporary English composer John Tavener: "Today the Virgin" and "Village Wedding." Strongly influenced by the liturgy of the Russian Orthodox Church, Tavener's style blended perfectly with the program's medieval and Renaissance material.

-- Joseph McLellan Kathy Mattea

And Army Ensembles Country singer Kathy Mattea had a hard act to follow at Constitution Hall Saturday afternoon. And we're not talking about the clownishly attired, trombone-playing, moonwalking -- well, more like moonstumbling -- Santa who made a brief appearance during the free holiday concert.

Preceding Mattea onstage and later accompanying her were scores of soldier musicians who make up various United States Army ensembles: its orchestra, chorus, chorale and Herald Trumpets. The first half of the hour-plus program, which embraced everything from a cappella doo-wop to festive symphonic scores, boasted a lot of impressive talent. Among the vocalists who stood out were Staff Sgts. Alvy Powell and Christal Rheams, who contributed soul-stirring renditions of "Hail Mary" and "Go Tell It on the Mountain." Who could blame Mattea if she felt a little intimidated listening backstage to their majestic voices ring out?

It didn't take her long, however, to win over the audience. Her warmly glowing, country-tinged voice shone right through the orchestral arrangements of "Christ Child Lullaby" and "Angels We Have Heard on High." Some of the performances were also enhanced by the exquisite harmonies she shared with members of the chorus. Mattea seemed inspired by the expansive setting, though she confessed that she wasn't quite sure how some of the male singers in the chorale managed to hit notes well beyond her reach. Perhaps it was the result of some terrible accident in boot camp, she concluded.

A full-scale television production taped for broadcast to service personnel overseas, the concert ultimately came across as one big cheery and patriotic postcard from home.

-- Mike Joyce Burning Brides

At the Black Cat

Burning Brides singer-guitarist Dimitri Coats seemed enthused that his band was concluding a two-month tour on Friday the 13th at the Black Cat -- a combination perfect for summoning the dark magic of rock and roll. It was technically Saturday morning when the Philadelphia band hit the stage, but the Brides still delivered a compendium of hard-rock textures that was solid, if hardly magical.

The Brides -- Coats and bassist Melanie Campbell, with new drummer Jason Kourkounis completing the trio -- have been riding high for much of 2002, as V2 Records reissued their independent debut album "Fall of the Plastic Empire" and sent them on a high-profile tour with Queens of the Stone Age. Coats's tunes are a backward-gazing stash that recall Black Sabbath with the fat trimmed away and the metallic flush of Monster Magnet.

During its 45-minute set Friday, the group sounded sharp, Coats crashing out the opening riffs of songs like "Glass Slipper" and "Stabbed in the Back of the Heart" while the bass and drums rushed to thump the proper gutbucket accompaniment. By spurning the excesses associated with their hard-rock influences, Burning Brides managed to stay engaging, and occasionally -- as in the case of their best song, "Arctic Snow" -- really engaging.

An opening set from Brooklyn rockers Bad Wizard pushed an even wilder hard-rock vibe, with vocalist Curtis Brown yelling with so much emotion that he spilled his drinks on the front rows of the crowd.

-- Patrick Foster Theater Chamber Players

At the Terrace Theater Some glorious chamber music performances here last week (by the Mendelssohn and Eggner piano trios, to name two) have raised expectations of equally remarkable concerts to follow. Marking their 35th season, the Theater Chamber Players combined recent and old music Saturday at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater. They played well, if a bit short of their usual heights.

Pianist Leon Fleisher, who founded the Players along with Dina Koston, set the evening's memorial tone with a quietly reverent version of Bach's "Sheep May Safely Graze" in memory of two longtime associates of the group. Fleisher next premiered Koston's "Messages," a reflective chain of imagined dialogues in continual metamorphosis. Violinists David Salness and Sally McLain engaged in nine of Luciano Berio's pedagogic, yet slyly parodistic, 34 Duets. Mezzo Patricia Green and McLain gave a fine account of Gyorgy Kurtag's "S.K. -- Remembrance Noise"; as did the Left Bank Quartet in Kurtag's "Officium Breve in Memoriam Andreae Szervanszky."

Yet I missed the bolting rhythmic energy and lyrical undercurrents in other Kurtag works I've heard. And unfortunately, the Left Bank's often opulent Brahms Piano Quartet No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 60, was undermined by a violin sounding overpowered and a touch behind.

-- Cecelia Porter

Waverly Consort:

'The Christmas Story'

Listening to the Waverly Consort wend its way through "The Christmas Story" at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater on Friday, it was easy to ignore the candy-box pink and silver of the hall and mentally redecorate it in something more Gothic.

"The Christmas Story" is a canny repackaging of medieval sacred music from the 10th through the 14th century, to create a sort of pre-operatic, Latin music-drama. Centered on musical settings of the Nativity from Rouen and Fleury, France, the piece is studded with songs, carols and portions of the Latin Mass that range in style from plainchant through pungent early polyphony to the richer harmonies that point toward the Renaissance.

The eight singers and five instrumentalists in the company, wearing puffy shirts, billowing dresses and some very solemn expressions, moved stiffly through a semi-staging of the drama, but performed the music with a naturalness and confidence that commanded attention.

The voices -- forthright, pure-toned and loaded with individual character -- melded seamlessly with the piquant ancient instruments.

As is so often the case with scores this old, the kinship with ethnic folk music and with Middle Eastern music was pronounced, not least in the plaintive cry of the shawm, the earthy buzz of the nun's fiddle and the ethereal halo conjured on the bells to accompany the archangel's proclamations.

What an eloquent rebuke to all the saccharine holiday pageants that descend on Washington every year.

-- Joe Banno

Kathy Mattea shared the spotlight with Army performers and Santa at Constitution Hall. Pianist Leon Fleisher premiered a work by fellow Theater Chamber Players founder Dina Koston.