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Master Chorale, Candlelight Christmas Concert

Christmas Concerts at Ionarts:

Suspicious Cheese Lords, National Gallery (December 20)

Family Christmas Concert, Choral Arts Society (December 20)

Opera Lafayette, La Maison Française (December 19)

Vienna Choir Boys, Strathmore (December 17)

Messiah, National Symphony and Washington Chorus (December 16)

Trio Mediæval, Kennedy Center (December 13)
Well, if Jens took the Messiah bullet for Ionarts this year (hey, I had to sing the damn thing once), the dreaded Christmas concert rounds obviously fell into my lap. The Master Chorale of Washington (née Paul Hill Chorale) offered the second performance of its traditional Candlelight Christmas Concert on Monday evening. Perhaps the greatest risk involved in attending a Christmas concert is having to listen to one of those terrible seasonal "favorites." I live in fear of The Little Drummer Boy, a nefarious melodic parasite that burrows through the ear into the cerebral cortex, never to be dislodged. To my horror, here it was again, after Mini-Critic and I already heard it at the Family Christmas Concert on Sunday. "Parum-papum-pum": yes, it's still there in my brain, eating up melodic storage space.

The other risk is having to sit through any choral work by John Rutter, that purveyor of hackneyed schlock. Ugh, here too was his saccharine setting of Here We Come A-Wassailing, along with several pieces of music disappointingly similar to it. Criticism is only about personal taste, but I personally would be happy never to hear another piece by Rutter ever again: his popularity with choral singers and conductors makes this goal impossible. The only part of the first half that really appealed to me was the candlelight processional, a rendition of the hymn Once in Royal David's City that owes a lot to the famous Lessons and Carols service at King's College, as the group's conductor, Donald McCullough, admitted during his far too extensive commentary. (We have all stolen from the King's College service, of course.)

Other Reviews:

Daniel Ginsberg, Peace and Joy From the Master Chorale (Washington Post, December 21)
Unfortunately, the second half was not much better from a programming perspective, except for a pretty choral arrangement of White Christmas, which in spite of having also been over-popularized, is an effective and pretty song. However, the purpose of this concert is not to present anything particularly original but to give the audience an "experience," consisting of carol sing-alongs and the music director's interminable banter. Donald McCullough is very good at both of these things, and he obviously won over the not surprisingly reserved Monday night audience. He not only had us standing for the participatory carols but singing loudly and clearly enjoying ourselves. McCullough even coached us through performing a cluster, which every choral singer has probably had to do before, made by a few singers holding specified notes of a melodic phrase while the rest sing it through.

McCullough is also very good at coaching his large group of about 120 singers, combining a few professionals with a large corps of dedicated volunteers. As a musician, I think that all competent, trained singers should be paid like professionals and held to professional standards. However, large choral groups like this one -- and we have so many here in Washington -- would probably not be possible without the dedicated work of volunteers who just love to sing. The Master Chorale gave an excellent performance, with an admirably broad dynamic range, uniformity of diction, and attention to subtle detail for such a large group. They clearly listen to one another, as shown in their concluding number, in which they sang three carols from memory, in the darkness, while spread throughout the stage and aisles of the Concert Hall while holding their battery-powered candles.

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