The Kennedy Center Hall is decked in evergreen, but The Washington Chorus brings the candles as they file into to the solemn song of “Once in Royal David’s City” to begin A Candlelight Christmas. They are joined onstage by a brass chorus, an organist, a harpist, singers from a local performing arts high school, and then finally the entire audience for a number of sing-along’s. Many of the audience members has been coming to The Washington Chorus’annual Christmas celebration for years.
The man at the helm of this huge undertaking is Julian Wachner, a conductor who begins with warmups for the audience and only picks up steam as the night goes on with a lot of high-energy Christmas songs like “Sing We to This Merry Company” and “Jesus Child,” both by John Rutter. Wachner also arranges much of the music, including “Joy to the World,” “Angels We Have Heard on High” and the jubilant “The Snow Lay on the Ground.” His arrangements go for big chords and big emotions.
The Grammy Award-winning chorus is over 150 members strong and has been going strong for half a century. The singers are all community members with professional-quality voices and they thrive on these big numbers, but also can handle more traditional carols and quiet a cappella offerings like “Sir Christémas” by William Matthias, “Infant Holy, Infant Lowly,” and “Sussex Carol.”
The Washington Chorus also runs a program called Side-By-Side where they work with high school singing groups each year. The group featured this year is A Cappella! from James Hubert Blake High School in Montgomery County. It is a Signature High School in the Fine Arts and Humanities. This 20-person ensemble is the cream of the crop under the direction of Sandra Lee Zinkievich. They stick to the classics in challenging arrangements like “The Christmas Song,” “Here We Come A-Caroling” and my favorite of the evening, “In the Bleak Midwinter.” They are a polished and beautiful group and it was fun to see them join the larger ensemble for the rest of the show.
The National Capital Brass and Percussion and organist Janet Yieh support the singers. The brass sound great and never overpower the vocals and Yieh rocked out across five keyboards on the Concert Hall organ.
Wachner has designed a wonderful, informal evening of music with familiar traditional carols juxtaposed with less well-known pieces and quiet, candlelit moments like “Silent Night” balanced with the closing, triumphant “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah. It’s easy to see why so many families make this a part of their holiday season year after year. It truly feels like a community event. We even sang Happy Birthday to a chorus member during the concert.
The Washington Chorus’ A Candlelight Christmas is a Yuletide tradition with a glorious sound filled with heart and joy.
Running Time: Two hours, with one 15-minute intermission.
A Candlelight Christmas plays through December 22, 2014 at The Washington Chorus performing at The Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall — 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. Remaining performances are sold out. For future Kennedy Center performance visit their performance calendar. For future Washington Chorus performance go to their website.