Here they come a’caroling: D.C. choruses light up the holidays

Here they come a’caroling: D.C. choruses light up the holidays

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After the 1742 premiere of Handel’s “Messiah” at Neale’s Music Hall in Dublin, advertisements for subsequent performances asked a small “Favour” of future attendees: “That the Ladies who honour this Performance with their Presence would be pleased to come without Hoops as it will greatly encrease the Charity, by making Room for more Company.” (Gentlemen, meanwhile, were asked to consider leaving their swords at home.)

On Friday evening, the Washington National Cathedral Choir and Baroque Orchestra faced no such shortage of personal space, set as they were at the crux of the cathedral’s 80-something-thousand-square-foot cross.

And while microphones onstage and monitors set up around the nave helped to mitigate the distance between the audience and the action, this wasn’t a “Messiah” meant to overwhelm. Its “Hallelujah” didn’t blow your hair back; its heraldic blasts of trumpet often softened into radiant, reverberant plumes; and its chorus of 44 singers, ably led by director of music Canon Michael McCarthy, sustained the gentle glow of a halo all evening long.

None of which is to say this wasn’t a “Messiah” of musical distinction. Four superb soloists — including one substitute — gave this account of the beloved oratorio a hefty helping of personality. Bass Kevin Deas’s airs anchored each of its three parts with thunderous drama and stentorian command. Mezzo-soprano Zoie Reams was also fabulous, bringing delicacy and sumptuous depth to her centerpiece air (“He was despised …”)

Soprano Laura Choi Stuart sang with a stained-glass blend of bright colors and soft edges, her “Rejoice greatly” a marvelous display of her agility; her highflying acrobatics in the third part a memorable send-off. And hot-voiced tenor Matthew Hill stepped in to replace celebrated “Messiah” tenor Rufus Müller — a tall order he met with verve and confidence, delivering a striking introduction from the center of the nave (“Comfort ye, comfort ye my people,”) and smashing the proverbial potter’s vessel with a fiery air in the third.

The chorus — a combination of voices from young Cathedral Choristers and the adult Cathedral Choir — sounded perfectly at home in the colossal space. McCarthy brought out lovely textures, especially in the descending lines of the first part air from the Book of Malachi (“And He shall purify …”). He also kept the chorus and orchestra in lively conversation — greatly aided by Stephen Gamboa’s harpsichord and Thomas Sheehan’s continuo organ.

In a setting that could easily have warranted the overdoing of everything, McCarthy and company did precisely what was needed to balance the divinity of the “Messiah” with the humanity of its music.

At Strathmore the following night, the Washington Bach Consort presented its Director Series performance of J.S. Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” (BWV 248). Well, most of it. We heard four of the oratorio’s six parts — Parts 1, 2, 5 and 6 — lest we keep the baby Jesus up all night.

The “Christmas Oratorio” is one of Bach’s more brightly wrapped gifts. In the consort’s program notes, musicologist Daniel R. Melamed pointed to the high contrast encountered by 19th-century scholars of Bach’s music upon discovery of the “sunny and smiling” oratorio in comparison with the more solemn characters and contrapuntal complexity of, say, the “St. Mark’s Passion.”

Originally performed in 1734 as part of Christmas festivities at two churches in Leipzig, Germany, over nearly two weeks, the collated cantatas that made up Saturday’s condensed oratorio amounted to an extended Nativity scene, with recitative narration by an Evangelist (tenor Thomas Cooley) and the text otherwise split between a stellar trio — mezzo-soprano Sylvia Leith, soprano Amy Broadbent and bass Dashon Burton.

Broadbent made an effortlessly convincing angel in Part 2, and though she did struggle a bit to surface within the weave of the Part 5 trio, her aria in Part 6 was exquisitely clear and controlled. Burton’s substantial bass was a special treat all night — booming with authority yet landing with uncanny grace, especially his Part 1 aria, beguilingly tangled up in trumpet. Paired with lithe flute, Leith delivered a fabulous aria in Part 2 (“Sleep, my most Beloved …”), and she was key in the group’s ensemble work.

But it was Cooley that held the night together. A natural Evangelist with a generous tenor and a gregarious presence, he drew gripping drama from potentially disposable recitative and sung with an inviting gentleness that effectively cloaked the brute force of his voice.

Trumpeters Josh Cohen (who also performed at the cathedral), Dillon Parker and Doug Wilson were all in fine, gleaming form, especially in the triumphant opening and closing chorales of Part 6. The consort’s entire flute, oboe and bassoon section played beautifully, offering crisp conversation with tart strings stoked by conductor Dana Marsh. Concertmaster Tatiana Chulochnikova gave a stunning solo turn in Part 5′s trio — one of the evening’s loveliest musical moments. And special props to timpanist Michelle Humphreys for her precise and celebratory punctuation.

On Sunday afternoon at St. Ann’s Catholic Church, the Washington Master Chorale presented “Sweet Was the Song,” a Christmas program that doubled as an enlightening musical journey through centuries of carols and chorales.

From the opening hand-drums that accompanied the rough-edged 15th-century “Salutation Carol” (sung by alto Rachel Bradley and baritone Bill Townsend) to a frosty-windowed rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” artistic director Thomas Colohan and his 54-voice chorus seemed intent on showing their range and playing to their strengths.

This included a level of confidence you don’t often see in semiprofessional chorales: The Washington Master Chorale is an exceptionally focused group, bringing equal commitment to a pair of 16th-century carols as to a world premiere of “Dona Nobis Pacem,” a vertiginously composed (and partially chance-driven) setting of an eighth-century Roman text by composer Riley Ferretti.

“John Carter’s 1985 setting of May Kay Beall’s “In Time of Softest Snow” landed with apropos lightness, the chorus wrapping its cozy harmonies around them. Its second-half counterpart — Holst’s setting of Christina Rossetti’s “In the Bleak Midwinter” — was soft and solemn.

The chorale was accompanied by a small ensemble of musicians, including the team of trumpeters Robert Bonner and Rob Singer (whose fine medley of simply and elegantly arranged carols for two opened the concert) and pianist/organist Jordan Prescott (whose own improvised medley on organ encompassed the church in a wild wind). Colohan gets extra credit not just for his ample enthusiasm, but also for gamely conducting musicians on opposite ends of the church — “the length of a city block,” as he put it.

The evening ended with the chorus lighting candles and encircling the audience for a 360-degree performance of “Silent Night,” which pulled this impressive group into a garland of individual voices. It was a helpful reminder that when it comes to generating holiday spirit — against all the odds — we each have our own song to sing.

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