Master Chorale

At the Kennedy Center The candles are what make the difference in the Christmas Candlelight Concerts of the Master Chorale of Washington. In a city richly endowed with outstanding choruses, this added bit of show business gave a special flavor to Sunday afternoon's concert in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. Even for those whose reaction to Christmas is a hearty "Humbug!" the symbolism of a candle, small and fragile, shedding a little circle of light in darkness, has a deep-rooted power. That power is enhanced if there are more than 100 candles, held by singers who hum "Silent Night" as they proceed majestically up the aisles. A different effect, equally striking, is observed as the Concert Hall stage slowly fills up with candle-bearing singers, growing brighter and brighter as their numbers increase.

There was also, of course, singing -- all religiously oriented and mostly traditional in the first half; partly religious and partly just festive in the second. The audience sang along, encouraged and conducted by Music Director Donald McCullough, in "O Come All Ye Faithful," "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" and "Let There Be Peace on Earth." The audience (I can report objectively, having stood mute to avoid conflicts of interest) sang nearly as well as the superbly trained chorus. Texts for the singalong, as well as for music with foreign words, were handily supplied in the program.

Besides his skills as a music director, McCullough is a composer of some distinction. One of his contributions to the program was a properly hushed arrangement of "What Child Is This?" reverent enough to make one forget the tune's other incarnation as "Greensleeves," the lament of an abandoned lover. His other composition was even more impressive: the three-part "Canite Tuba" ("Sound the Trumpet") with a Latin text, brass and percussion, celebrating the three emotionally contrasted parts of the Yuletide season: the proclamatory title number for Advent, an awestruck "Verbum Caro Factum Est" ("The Word Was Made Flesh") for the Nativity and a triumphant "Surge Illuminare" ("Rise, Shine") for Epiphany.

There will be repeat performances Saturday afternoon and Sunday evening.

-- Joseph McLellan Cathedral Choral Society at

Washington National Cathedral J.Reilly Lewis and his Cathedral Choral Society can be counted on to deliver the richest and smartest of Washington's Christmas concerts. This year's "Joy of Christmas" program (given three times last weekend at Washington National Cathedral) did not disappoint, offering a split bill of traditional British and contemporary American music.

On the British half of the concert, Lewis's chorus was at its lithe, warm-toned best in Vaughan Williams's gorgeous "Fantasia on Christmas Carols." Jon Bruno -- with his sweet, rock-solid baritone and sensitive treatment of the text -- was tailor-made for the solo part. The Potomac School Concert Chorus, under Jerry Rich's direction, was showcased in Britten's spare and haunting "Ceremony of Carols," its disciplined and light-textured sound doing the music justice. The school's Madrigal Singers handled the vocal solos capably -- treble Jake Levin was a standout -- and another student, Grace Browning, played the challenging harp solos exceptionally well. This kid is going places.

The world premiere of Steven Sametz's recently commissioned anthem "Angel Fire" proved a highlight among fine American works by Gwyneth Walker, Charles Callahan, Richard Wayne Dirksen and James Stuart Grant. In its resolutely tonal way, "Angel Fire" distilled a good deal of atmosphere, not least in its striking writing for brass. Here, and in a buoyant, antiphonal pre-concert recital, the Washington Symphonic Brass was exemplary in technique and clarion power.

-- Joe Banno

Choral Arts Society

At the Kennedy Center Audiences never seem to tire of Christmas concerts ushered in by candlelit processionals of singers, the buoyant cheer of vibrant brass choirs and the expanded sonic dimensions of pipe organs. That was the scene Sunday afternoon in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall offered by the Choral Arts Society and conductor Norman Scribner.

With tinkling bells and tambourines instead of candles, the mammoth 200-voice chorus gave a program of seasonal arrangements alternating with Russian songs and a singalong carol finale for the audience. Soprano Alessandra Marc and the strumming instrumental shimmer of the Washington Balalaika Society added to the festive event.

"Welcome All Wonders" by Richard Wayne Dirksen and Daniel Pinkham's Christmas Cantata -- both straight from the Church of England tradition -- were nicely done. But the beauty of Sunday's concert was diminished by Marc's frequently wavering tones clearly above pitch, the unsettling noise made by a surplus of latecomers, English texts rendered in muddled choral diction and clapping after every single item performed.

-- Cecelia Porter

Washington Chorus

At the Kennedy Center On Sunday evening at the Kennedy Center, "Jingle Bells" gave way to more variegated and rich seasonal music as the Washington Chorus delightfully sang no fewer than five works by living composers during its annual holiday concert.

Through its typically colorful, golden sound, the 100-person chorale brought warmth and emotion to such works as Richard Wayne Dirksen's "Welcome All Wonders," John Rutter's "What Sweeter Music" and Robert Shafer's "Magnificat." Shafer himself conducted the proceedings with his usual enthusiasm and directness, while soprano Laura Lewis applied her dusky tone in Nicholas White's own version of the Magnificat. Tenor Michael Forest was touching in "Sweet Little Jesus Boy," a folk work rooted in the rich African American spiritual tradition.

The highlight was the performance by the Annandale Singers, the chorus from Annandale High School, under the direction of Carleen Dixon. Dressed in colorful Elizabethan garb, these young musicians displayed fine ensemble and purity of sound. Michael Weinberg and particularly Bayla Whitten gave memorable solos that painted a rosy picture for the future strength of choral singing in America. The audience got into the act, joining in on such seasonal favorites as "Silent Night" and "O Come, All Ye Faithful." In all, it was an engaging evening that could make even the biggest Scrooge crack a smile.

-- Daniel Ginsberg

Donald McCullough led a superb chorus -- and the audience -- in a candlelight concert.