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Enjoy your favorite musical tradition

Well the world didn't end based on the Mayan calendar, so go ahead and enjoy your holiday tradition.  The Washington Chorus has presented their Candlelight Christmas concerts for years, and this year they included performances at the Strathmore Music Center.
On paper the Washington Chorus concert looked very similar to the Washington Symphonic Brass concert also held at Strathmore earlier that week.  The ensemble consisted of chorus, brass and percussion – the Washington Chorus did add harp and organ but that was it.  However, the two concerts were totally different and this only goes to show that there is no one way to mount an enjoyable holiday show.
One difference is that the Washington Chorus employs much larger forces – nearly two hundred voices.  Under the careful direction of conductor Julian Wachner, the Chorus could be hushed throughout “Silent Night” and then raise their voices for a full throated version of the Hallelujah Chorus.  Perhaps the most effective single number was the modern carol “The Dream Isaiah Saw” that started very quiet, gradually added insistent drum beats and later brass, and built to a powerful climax.  It was Christmas Carol as mini-bolero.
 
The Chorus also did a lot more with lighting.  It is called a Candlelight Christmas for a reason, opening with the full chorus with electric candles for the opening “Once in Royal David’s City” with several singers coming down the Strathmore aisles in a small procession.  The candles were repeated in the second half to nice effect with the child-like “Still, Still, Still.”  Other times the Strathmore stage was bathed in red or green lights, and occasionally blue white, allowing the mood to shift from bright and celebratory to more introspective and hushed.
 
And there were times when all the house lights came on.  This was not a stay seated concert – musical director Wachner definitely believes in audience participation in the more familiar carols.  The most fun was that ever expending “Twelve Days of Christmas” song, but the audience was invited to join in on “Joy to the World,” “O Come All Ye Faithful” and even that concluding Hallelujah Chorus.
 
Plus the Washington Chorus was not alone.  As part of their Side by Side educational program, the Chorus welcomed the Madrigal Singers from Marriott Ridge High School in Howard County.  While dressed in Renaissance outfits, the closest these teenagers got to actual madrigals were the “Fa-la-la” refrains in “Deck the Halls.”  What these high school singers did do were rousing a capella versions of several holiday numbers – ranging from an almost doo-wop version of “Carol of the Bells” to the tongue twisting banter of the playful “Bagels and Biscuits.”  In a really nice touch, the high school singers joined the Chorus for the remainder of the concert.
 
The biggest difference was that the Washington Chorus stayed mostly with the tried and true carols of the German and English traditions.  That opening “Once in Royal David’s City” is now famous as the opening song to most King’s College Christmas concerts.  Familiar numbers dominated the program, including “Angels we have Heard on High,” the familiar Mendelssohn version of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” two different versions of “In Dulci Jubilo” and even “Jingle Bells” from the Madrigal Singers.
 
The lesser known numbers generally stayed within this tradition, such as two carols by contemporary British composer John Rutter.  Rutter has become famous for well-done choral music that is traditional in tonality but often adds jazz or other popular idioms.  The Latin rhythms in “Jesus Child” certainly fit that bill, but the best known Rutter tune of this program was the achingly beautiful “What Sweeter Music” that is as traditional as you can get, and a carol I am sure you have heard even if the title does not immediately ring a bell.
 
So a lovely concert to prepare you for the holidays.  Wait a minute – the Mayan apocalypse did not occur on the Winter Solstice as predicted?  Oh great, now I have to go out and actually buy Christmas presents. 
 
Coming up next for the Washington Chorus, a true choral masterpiece with Mendelssohn’s oratorio “Elijah,” performed at the Kennedy Center on Sunday February 24.  For a complete schedule and ticket information, call 202-342-6221 or go online to http://www.thewashingtonchorus.org/.
 
 
 
 
 
3 stars 
 
 
 
By David Cannon
 
Mocovox Entertainment Critic
 
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

There's a lot of brass in this Strathmore production

As noted by conductor Victoria Gau, the Washington Symphonic Brass holiday concert at Strathmore was at least three journeys in one.

Presented by the National Philharmonic, the Washington Symphonic Brass is a lot larger than the name suggests. It consists of more than a dozen brass musicians, several playing multiple instruments, and the group could perform as a large ensemble and break into smaller groups. In addition, there were several percussionists, playing everything from timpani drums to sleigh bells. Plus the National Philharmonic Chorale, a subset of the full chorus, was on hand for several numbers.

The first journey was through time. Some of the holiday selections were very old, despite being dressed up in more modern arrangements. The Finnish Carol “Divinum Mysterium” (Of the Father’s Love Begotten) is a carol from the 16th century, and its words go back far earlier. Meanwhile, “In the Bleak Midwinter” is from a poem by Romantic poet Christina Rossetti, set to music in the early twentieth century by Gustav Holst, and the Brass gave a suitably somber rendition of this song.

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The University of Maryland celebrated the holidays with a “Festive Baroque” concert last weekend, and it was half true.  The second half featured one of the liveliest Baroque works in the repertory and perfect for this time of year.  It is both one of the most famous and most obscure works.

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This co-presentation by CulturalDC and CityDance is a demanding one hour performance with no breaks. Once the five dancers get one stage, they very rarely leave. While there is a small solo for Nate Johnson at one point, and a short duet between two female performers, generally all five dancers are constantly on stage and constantly doing something.

 

 

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