Oh, the weather outside was anything but frightful, but the music inside was most delightful as the Annapolis Chorale took center stage at Maryland Hall Friday evening for its annual "Celebration of Christmas."

With a fine pair of soloists and a full orchestra along for the sleigh ride, this was a Christmas concert that exuded good cheer and wonderful music. Snippets from J. S. Bach's "Christmas Oratorio," Handel's "Messiah" and Mozart's "Exultate Jubulate" were performed along with a number of everyone's favorite carols.

Joining the chorale as a narrator of selections from Dylan Thomas, Charles Dickens and the Gospel of St. Luke was Charles Gibson of ABC's "Good Morning, America" fame.

Gibson's contributions, which included a moving final commentary, evinced the same engaging wit and unpretentious eloquence that have been eroding the Christmas spirit of executives over at NBC's "Today Show" for some years now. His personal warmth fit the occasion beautifully.

The seasonal spirit of giving was also very much alive. Proceeds from Friday's concert are headed to Pathways, the drug and alcohol treatment center about to be built on Riva Road in Annapolis. A worthy cause, to be sure.

Musically, there were several things to admire. With the exception of a messy "Amen" from Handel's "Messiah," the chorale was well-prepared for the occasion. The carols were spruced up far more conscientiously than they had been last year, and the more challenging selections sounded similarly scrubbed.

Soprano Carolene Winter lends artistic class to any concert. She possesses a clear, lovely voice and she knows what to do with it. Not fiery or flashy, she gets to the heart of a phrase as only a true musician can.

Her Mozart "Alleluia" was beautiful, and the goose bumps were out in force when she sang "O Holy Night."

However, not to turn into the Grinch, but I think the Annapolis Chorale and its conductor have some things to learn about singing in Maryland Hall -- and I hope that this Christmas Program will prove to be a learning experience, since the group's February and May concerts will also take place there.

Let's have it straight from the shoulder: Maryland Hall is an acoustical wasteland, a horrendously difficult auditorium in which to sing and play.

The small amount of sound that ever makes it out to the audience is muffled by the carpeting and curtains that adorn the hall. Surrounding the chorus is a rinky-dink shell that would insult a junior high school glee club.

The resulting sound is dry, cramped and desperately in need of a boost.

I'd like to see the Annapolis Chorale compensate for the woeful sonics a lot more than they do.

This is not a hall for intimate, subtle choral nuances. Sustained energy, sustained intensity, sustained phrases and, yes, sustained volume are absolutely crucial for sonic success.

Detached staccato phrases like those found in Bach's "Jauchzet frohlocket" must maintain a measure of breadth, or the brittle acoustics will chop them up beyond recognition.

The angelic "oohs and ahs" of the Vaughan-Williams "Christmas Fantasia" can easily sound tentative (and even wrong) if they are not begun more assertively. Conductor Ernest Green's clarinetist was striving for understated intimacy in his "Waltz of the Flowers" solos, but was made to sound anemic and wimpy by an environment that does not acknowledge such a virtue.

Maryland Hall is not St. Anne's or St. Martin's, and I urge the chorale to remember that and compensate for the frigidity of the surrounding space.

I also invite the powers-that-be to consider changing their news slant for next year's Christmas Celebration. Roger Mudd served nicely last year and Charlie Gibson was great but I, for one, have always wondered what it would be like to have Connie Chung read me a story.

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