If singing along to the Hallelujah Chorus or Hark, the Herald Angels Sing are requisite to bolstering your holiday spirit, then Songs of the Season: Christmas with Choral Arts at the Kennedy Center will do nicely.
This year’s song selection leans Anglo-German, part of a cultural partnership with the German embassy. Natürlich, this means there is a little Bach, a little Beethoven, and some Stille Nacht to go with the selections from Handel’s Messiah and other holiday choral hits. There is the perennial favorite sing-along at the performance’s conclusion, so everyone can sing their hearts out accompanied by the largely unstopped concert hall organ and Choral Arts Brass Ensemble.
However, the artistic highlight of this year’s concert was the Choral Arts Youth Choir prepared and conducted by Brandon Straub, the Choral Arts’ associate conductor. The choir, founded by Straub in 2015, is comprised of 20 top quality singers from regional high school choirs who, once they are given their musical assignments, are left to prepare largely on their own, thanks in part to the practical realities of running a youth choir spanning so large a geography. With what Choral Arts director Scott Tucker told the audience was just a few “intense bursts” of rehearsal, the youth pulled together an impressive trio of works which, if not technically perfect, still evidenced excellent musicianship.
They began with the Basque carol, Gabriel’s Message arranged by Jim Clements. The highest soprano initially had difficulty blending with the rest of her section, but she either heard this herself or took a cue from Straub, since mid-way through she tucked herself in a bit, and the result was lovely. Next was contemporary British composer Cecilia McDowall’s motet Ave Regina, a relatively difficult piece, reminiscent of Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols. This atmospheric work composed in 2004 is still new enough to the canon to require careful listening both by the audience and performer for it to touch the heart. There were a few moments when I worried the sections would not end up where they should, but they did. For a group of singers who don’t actually sing together that often, their command of timing and blend was remarkable.
The group finished with David Willcocks’ arrangement of Samuel Scheidt’s A Child is Born in Bethlehem. It was so pretty and differently textured than what we’re accustomed to hearing, and for a few measures, I wondered why. Girl sopranos! So much of the choral canon was written during a time when church personnel were male only. As such, tradition endures with these works being sung largely by boys whose voices have yet to change. To hear actual sopranos whose voices have yet to fully blossom, not deepen, was refreshing. It was the best of the three works.
Soloist Kristina Lewis’s performance confused me. Her low notes were too low to hear, making me think the works were all scored too low for her voice, yet she is billed as a mezzo-soprano. Meanwhile, her high notes did not bloom as expected, and the middle was often pitchy. An exception was in Tucker’s own arrangement of Adolphe Charles Adam’s O Holy Night, which overcame some missteps by the brass and sounded nice in Lewis’s voice. Together with guitarist Michael Bard, Lewis sang the traditional Appalachian carol I Wonder as I Wander, which was a quiet palette cleanse from the bombastic jubilation of the full-chorus carols. Bard’s Flamenco-esque flourishes spiced up the hymnal quality of it all.
Other program highlights include Straub’s arrangement of the traditional O Come, O Come, Emmanuel and his rendering of J.S. Bach’s In Dulci Jubilo BWV 729 at the organ. Any time any quality choral group sings Morten Lauridsen’s O Magnum Mysterium it’s worth the price of admission, and so it was with this performance. Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, sung first in English, then in German was a rousing favorite, as was Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus, both for those who stood and those who sat during this sing-along performance. Either way, the house was filled with cheerful enthusiasm for it.
Running time: Approximately 90 minutes, with no intermission.
Songs of the Season: Christmas with Choral Arts, presented by The Choral Arts Society of Washington, runs through December 24, 2019, at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. For tickets, call the Kennedy Center box office at (202) 467-4600 or go online.