The Baltimore Choral Arts Society is reponsible for one of the city's most popular annual holiday concerts. Traditionally held in the gorgeous Baltimore Basilica, "Christmas with Choral Arts" gets an extra life each year thanks to WMAR-TV (ABC2). The 2009 concert will air at 11:35 p.m. Thursday and 9 a.m. Christmas Day.
Effectively conducted by Tom Hall, the program offers a considerable amount of fresh material (folks seeking nothing by chestnuts roasted by an open choir may be disappointed). Several contemporary works are included, among them
premieres by Rosephanye Dunn Powell and jazz legend Dave Brubeck.
Powell's multi-movement "Christmas Give" contains resonances of traditional spirituals (the minor-key "Christus Natus Est," for example, sounds like a distant cousin to "Go Down Moses"), along with pop music ("Christmas Memories" is a shimmering ballad that could well enjoy a wider life) and African folk music ("Ogo ni fun Oluwa" has an infectious, joyful propulsion).
Brubeck's "Precious Gift His Wondrous Birth," with text by his wife Iola, offers a grand message ("Unify the human race") in musically modest fashion. "A Clean Heart," by Baltimore-based composer James Lee, III, is a subtly powerful, a cappella gem with rich harmonization; the chorus sings it beautifully.
The concert also includes a vibrant performance of Mendelssohn's "Rise Up" that easily demonstrates the ensemble's vocal and expressive strengths, and it's fun to hear a "Halleljuah" by Handel that isn't from "Messiah" (the familiar one is here, too). The orchestra is an asset throughout the program. All in all an entertaining celebration of music that communicates the essential messages of Christmas.