The front door had barely cracked open and already the lilt of harmonizing voices could be heard from the sanctuary at Central Presbyterian Church in Towson.
This was just choir practice — an important one to be sure, for the Christmas concert was only a week away — but the group sang without nerves beneath gold-bowed wreaths and evergreen boughs on an altar already decorated for the holidays.
The singers paused in their rendition of "I Saw Three Ships," for handbell players to chime the melody. Then the choir joined in, "And all the bells on earth shall ring on Christmas day, on Christmas day."
Their song filled the sanctuary — and the orchestra wasn't even there.
Indeed, the biggest challenge for the biggest Christmas concert in the north Baltimore area will be where to put all the performers come Dec. 13 and 15, said Carol Corey, of Riderwood, who organizes the Sundays at Central concert series and sings soprano.
Corey started singing in the church's choir 50 years ago and said their Christmas concert tradition began typically enough. But since Lutherville resident Tom Brantigan began directing it 13 years ago, the concert has gotten a little bigger each year and even a little better as musicians who sub at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and singers who teach at the Peabody have joined the roster of melody makers.
It's true that it's "not your usual church choir concert," Brantigan said — for one, there is a full orchestra, plus "a pipe organ that will peel the paint off the wall."
(To back up Brantigan's jovial bragging, church organist Jonathan Parker played a few powerful and triumphant measures of "O, Come All Ye Faithful" at practice.)
For another, the audience will be invited to sing along and mingle their voices with the choir as they belt out, "O, Little Town of Bethlehem," and other carols or hymns.
This year's theme is "The Greatest Story Ever Sung," so all of the songs in some way recount an element of the Christmas story.
Except there have to be a few unexpected elements, Brantigan said. For this year's twist on the theme, the singers will explore the idea of family stories and that's when the audience can expect to hear a song or two not usually sung in church.
Like a lot of musical acts, this one has its share of loyal followers. Last year, close to 500 people attended each of the two performances. Brantigan's brother usually flies in from San Juan Island, Wash., and other friends come up from Washington, D.C.
Brantigan, who is a retired technology consultant, has a doctorate in music and is Central Presbyterian's director of traditional music. He usually begins planning the Christmas concert in July. "I've been known to be sailing down the (Chesapeake) Bay, listening to Christmas carols," he laughed.
Despite the logistics, directing the concert has become one of his favorite Christmas traditions.
"It's a blessing for me to be able to do it," Brantigan said.
"The Greatest Story Ever Sung" will be performed in Central Presbyterian Church's Sanctuary, 7308 York Road, on Friday, Dec. 13, at 7:30 p.m. and again on Sunday, Dec. 15, at 3 p.m. The concert is free, however offerings will be accepted.