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Much like retail businesses, choral groups have a standard yearly schedule. They live a meager, hand-to-mouth existence 11 months of the year, but December is when they cash in. For the second in our annual series of holiday smackdowns!, Arts Desk offers a consumer report on Christmas concerts from two of our leading choral groups: The Washington Chorus’s A Candlelight Christmas and Choral Arts Society’s Holiday Cheer from Russia, currently at the Kennedy Center and Strathmore.
DIRECTOR: In terms of animal magnetism, 41-year-old TWC director Julian Wachner has a slight advantage over 75-year-old CAS director Norman Scribner. Not that Scribner is without his own allure; his awkward conducting style—-knees bent, hips wildly gyrating—-can be vaguely erotic. Wachner’s proven himself willing to be risqué, throwing a sex scene into his last composed choral work, Come My Dark Eyed One. So it wasn’t surprising that the evening started out with some inappropriate touching: Wachner instructed the audience to stand up and give each other backrubs. This is all part of his hammy routine, which he uses to great effect to elicit audience participation in the sing-a-longs. (Yes, there are sing-a-longs. You’ve been warned.) But while Wachner is cheerfully dictatorial, Scribner is just dictatorial, demanding the audience sing “Silent Night”—-in Russian!—-and then do it twice more so that soloist Irina Shishkova can correct their pronunciation. Point: TWC
PROGRAM: The Washington Chorus adheres to a standard pops formula. Wachner put together a good mix of fast and slow, familiar and obscure carols, and he spaced out the singalongs. The Choral Arts Society is more hamstrung in its selection. Each year CAS highlights music from a different country. This year it’s Russia because…it’s more Christmasy? Because it’s cold? Whatever the reasoning, this leaves the program with a lot of minor-key dirges that are a lot less merry than, say, “Holly Jolly Christmas,” and the more upbeat carols, thrown in at random, feel disjointed. Point: TWC
CHORUS: Both choruses are all-volunteer, and they’re both quite good. But the Choral Arts Society sings with their noses buried in their songbooks, whereas the Washington Chorus makes more of an effort to make eye contact. It’s little things like this that make all the difference in keeping an audience engaged—-particularly one made up of children in itchy sweaters who don’t want to be there. TWC is also joined by two choral groups from area high schools. Saturday’s Langley Madrigals handled their unfortunately named French carols (“Here, Mid the Ass and Oxen Mild” and “Touro-Louro-Louro!”) with remarkable grace, despite looking like extras from Robin Hood: Men in Tights. I’m guessing those puffy shirts don’t make them the coolest kids at Langley High, much as they deserve to be. Point: TWC
ORCHESTRA: CAS is accompanied by the Ural Philharmonic Orchestra (Sverdlovsk’s finest), which flew in for its first U.S. performance. They’re not the most famous symphonic group in Russia but they sound nice and boisterous, and play a rollicking Tchaikovsky’s “Jester’s Dance.” TWC is accompanied by a brass ensemble made up of players from the National Symphony Orchestra’s horn section—-which, if you were to pick any NSO section to feature, wouldn’t normally be in your top 10. Point: CAS
SOLOIST: TWC’s featured soloist, tenor Carl Tanner, is a bonafide opera star, and strikes all the diva poses to prove it: eyes closed, hands outstretched, nose pointed skyward. He does a soulful “Mary Had a Baby,” although “O Holy Night,” one of the prettiest Christmas songs, in my opinion sounds better with a female vocalist. But after only two short pieces, he’s gone. At least CAS’s soloist, mezzo-soprano Irina Shishkova, sticks around for four, including a beautiful “Ave Maria” in which she out-projects the entire chorus put together. Point: CAS
BONUS POINT: TWC for handing out candy canes after the concert
Overall, the Washington Chorus puts on the more spirited holiday program, and one with broader family appeal. You could see it in their respective opening-night audiences: The Washington Chorus had a lot more kids, whereas the Choral Arts Society had a lot more congressmen (or, at least, white guys with silver hair and little American flag lapel pins who look like congressmen). Choral Arts’ version of Christmas is more majestic but also a bit bloodless. Both get points off for forcing audiences to sing that plague canticle, Handel’s Messiah. But a couple in the front row at TWC’s Saturday concert got engaged in the middle of it, providing a bit of relief.
WINNER: The Washington Chorus
The Washington Chorus’s A Candlelight Christmas continues Tuesday, Dec. 20 at 7 p.m. and Thursday, Dec. 22 at 7 p.m. at the Kennedy Center, and Wednesday, Dec. 21 at 7:30 p.m. at Strathmore. The Choral Arts Society’s Holiday Treasures from Russia continues Wednesday, Dec. 21 at 7 pm and Saturday, Dec. 24 at 1 p.m. at the Kennedy Center. Saturday’s concert includes an additional performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. All concerts $15 – $65.