he Christmas season began last weekend for those who attended the Arundel Vocal Arts Society concert "A Spiritual Christmas" at Calvary United Methodist Church.
Now in her third season as AVAS conductor and music director, JoAnn Kulesza has achieved the goal she expressed when she arrived in September 2007, "to bring all of these voices together into a cohesive unit to create a unique, homogenous sound."
These AVAS choristers sounded better than ever as they performed choral favorites and explored new musical territory.
Kulesza, who is also music director of Peabody Conservatory Opera Programs, created an appealing and challenging program. Her singers explored early church music and rhythmic Latin-American and Southwestern carols and lullabies, creating lovely sounds a cappella and with a trio of fine musicians.
No ordinary sound
The concert began when 45 AVAS members entered from the back of the church, proceeding down the center aisle as many choirs do, but the sound as each singer passed was unlike any ordinary choir. Seldom does an audience hear so many fine voices up close, and rarely do choirs sing a processional anthem like Cantiones' "Gaudete," a crisp and bright medieval carol that started the evening.
Second on the program was "Beautiful Savior," which the group first sang a cappella at a Christmas concert in 2001 as a most appropriate carol in its simple statement of Christian faith.
Narrator Michael Gilles said this Lutheran hymn started life as a Silesian folk song. Gilles' narration was entertaining as he delved into the music and the evolution of the African-American spiritual, which began in slavery and resurged as a mighty cultural gift after the death of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Highlights of the program included the medieval Spanish "Riu Riu" and "Alegria" accompanied by Georgi Videnov on marimba, Mark Edwards on guitar and Iraida Poberezhnaya on harp.
Another joyous moment arrived with "Chiquirriquitin" ("Little Manger"), with its intricate melody and resemblance to a warm contemporary ballad.
The fascinating first section of the program proved to be a mere prelude to the soulful second half of traditional spirituals. They received the required honest reverence by the chorus along with the inspired singing of bass baritone soloist Robert Cantrell, who brought sincerity and heartfelt authenticity to his preformance.
Hearing Cantrell's "Deep River" was a profound experience that provided a deeper appreciation of this well-known music. Equally moving was "My Soul's Been Anchored in the Lord," which says "But if the storms don't cease, and if the winds keep on blowing in my life, my soul has been anchored in the Lord," which Cantrell sang with joyous reverence.
"Down to the Water to Pray" was filled with wonderful rhythm to fit the simple, innocent song: "O sister, let's go down, let's go down, come on down to the river to pray."
Bass-baritone Cantrell reached a still higher peak with his inspired singing of "Sweet Little Jesus Boy" - the purest telling of the Christmas story. "Sweet little Jesus boy, they made you be born in a manger, sweet little holy child, we didn't know who you were."
The program ended with the spirited, celebratory "Go Tell It on the Mountain."
Anyone interested in singing with the Arundel Vocal Arts Society can arrange an audition by calling 410-268-3131. Rehearsals for the spring concert start Jan. 13.