REVIEW: The 34th annual Choral Arts Society Gala painted a musical tapestry woven with diversity.
By Patrick D. McCoy
Music performances abound around Washington this time of year. From churches to schools to choirs to symphonies, the sounds of the season paint a full tapestry of this special holiday time. “A Capital Christmas” is this year’s musical greeting card presented to audiences at The Kennedy Center by The Choral Arts Society of Washington. Music director Scott Tucker kicked off the series of concerts, which further inspired the merriment that would be enjoyed later in the evening at the annual holiday gala. The program itself began with a traditional Spanish processional carol, “Riu, Riu, Chiu.” Soloist Andrew Ridgway alternated with the chorus, almost in the manner of a narrator. The rhythmic drive of the carol, with contrasting a cappella voices and verses accompanied by the lush strings of the Pan American Symphony Orchestra, piqued the level of excitement and interest in the program to come.
The 34th annual holiday gala was under the patronage of the Amb. of the Argentine Republic Cecilia Nahón, and the country’s rich cultural legacy was well presented in the chosen repertoire of the evening. A return to the traditional choral canon of music was experienced in the “Gloria” from J. S. Bach’s “Mass in B minor.” Still settled in the voices of the chorus from their recent performance of the entire work, Tucker conducted in a bright, quick tempo, coupled with the brass and timpani, continuing the joyous tone previously evoked by the processional.
Two works by the composer Ariel Ramirez put a much needed spotlight on concert choral repertoire from the Latin tradition. The story of the first piece in the set, “La Anunciación,” was conveyed perfectly by Tucker and the singers of Choral Arts. The rhythmic movement and bright vocal projection hinted at the age old celebration of the announcement by the angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary that she would become the mother of Jesus. Closing the set with another musical setting of the holiday story was “Los Reyes Majos,” joyfully preparing the way for the arrival of the Magi.
With so many holiday choral concerts in the area, audiences probably wonder what new dimension will be added to the standard favorites that they enjoy year after year. Several members of the Choral Arts family commissioned resident composer Paul Leavitt to fashion a special anthem for Tucker and his wife Julie Huang Tucker, an accomplished organist, leading to the world premiere performance of “The Bell” at this year’s holiday gala. The work itself was the perfect reflection of the couple for whom it was composed, from the brilliant energy of the organ accompaniment to the intricate vocal writing and thoughtful text. The culminating phrase “There shall be joy” was not only a musical covenant between the Tuckers, but also with their extended musical family, standing in agreement on stage.
Three instrumental pieces performed by the Pan American Symphony Orchestra offered a contrast to the choral selections. Maestro Sergio Alessandro Buslje not only led his ensemble in selections that showcased their concert prowess, but gave the audience an intimate introduction to instruments not commonly highlighted in the concert hall. “Gloria” by Ariel Ramirez was a festive treatment of the age old text, and the punctuated drive, attention to enunciation and sense of movement all continued the theme of jubilation felt throughout the evening.
What would a holiday concert be without the traditional favorites? Seasonal carols like “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “Joy to the World,” and “Deck the Halls” helped get the audience into the spirit. There are some songs you would not even dare attempt to alter in any way, such as “O Holy Night.” And yet, the Choral Arts Society took it on, and rocked it. Celebrated rock/pop guitarist Jeff “Skunk” Baxter and Scott Tucker put their talents together for what must go down in the musical annals as one of the most creative arrangements of the timeless classic. Baxter began on his steel guitar with a mellow tone that stirred a sense of sentimental longing. Layering one musical force after another, the beauty of a simple carol swelled into a symphony of joy.
During a time of such discord in our nation, it was wonderful to experience an evening of intentional musical and cultural diversity through Choral Arts’ beautiful holiday performance.