I think Arian Khaefi's tenure as artistic director of the Handel Choir of Baltimore is going to work out just fine.
He capped his first season -- the choir's 79th -- with a program Sunday afternoon at Second Presbyterian devoted to Rachmaninoff's a cappella choral masterpiece, "All-Night Vigil" (a.k.a. "Vespers"), music well beyond the ensemble's usual terrain. The results proved very respectable.
Khaefi was not inclined to dawdle. He emphasized momentum even when this richly atmospheric work was at its most reflective, but only rarely did things turn a bit brusque. The conductor's keen attention to dynamic shading and his fine sense of phrase-sculpting paid dividends throughout.
The choristers tackled the daunting score confidently. They handled the Russian liturgical text with apparent ease (I can't vouch for the accuracy of pronunciation, but it sure sounded authentic).
A few intonation slips aside, they also maintained clarity and cohesiveness of articulation. And, although only about 40 strong, the group summoned a good deal of power as needed, notably in the 12th movement.
The basses would not have passed muster in Russia, where voices can more commonly be found to negotiate the eerie, impossibly low notes Rachmaninoff wrote, but there was sufficient tonal foundation most of the time.
Above all, Khaefi drew from the singers admirable warmth of expression, nowhere more sensitively than in the fifth and sixth movements, not to mention the harmonically gorgeous "Alliluya" refrains in the third.
Guest tenor Brian Gieber delivered his solos with great elegance of tone and phrasing.
All in all, the concert struck me as something of an artistic milestone for the Handel Choir.