Performers really have it easy at Christmastime because anyone who finds fault with their holiday efforts comes off looking worse than the Grinch. And if they are doing it for charity, look out.

Well -- bah humbug!

Last Friday, the Annapolis Chorale, the Annapolis Chamber Orchestra, jazz singer Sue Matthews, classical soprano Carolene Winter and Carole Simpson of ABC News all got together to present "A Celebration of Christmas" at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts.

It was a benefit evening for both the chorale and the Pathways substance abuse rehabilitation facility. Both worthy causes to be sure, and judging from the full house, the evening had to be a financial success.

But artistically, neither the cause nor the audience was consistently well-served by the performances that evening.

Technically, yes, the music was good. Everybody stood where they were told and hit their cuesright on the button. But what conductor and musical director J. Earnest Green created that night was a sort of sonic ice sculpture: clear, precise and rather cold.

It has always been the blessing and thecurse of classical music that it demands so much in the way of precision and technique. All too frequently, the end result is a display of obvious expertise but without passion.

Not only that, but Green had his people performing at almost breakneck speed, as if they were trying to break the record for the four-minute cantata. Good pacing is desirable in any type of performance, but this was a mad -- for thefinish line.

One of the best examples was the chorale's offering of "The 12 Days of Christmas," which seemed to last about 12 seconds.

However, the chorale staged a comeback later in the evening, performing songs like "O Holy Night" with real dignity, and "Joy to the World" with gusto.

Carolene Winter is certainly a meticulous and highly trained artist. Her voice is an elegant instrument that gives proper due to songs like "O Holy Night" and the Appalachian song "I Wonder as I Wander."

This last was sort of the obligatory Christmas downer, to make the rest of us better appreciate what we have. It certainly made me better appreciate why I normally avoid this sort of holiday excess.

Winter has a majestic and stately stage presence and treated her music as something to be viewed under glass, untouched byhuman hands.

It was left for Matthews and Simpson to leaven the evening with a measure of humanity.

When Matthews sang Mel Torme's "Christmas Carol," she not only evoked the emotions of the season butdid so with intelligence, sophistication and respect. Her rendition of "I'll Be Home for Christmas" was relaxed, comfortable and truly delightful, with a sort of big band feel to it.

You could almost close your eyes and imagine she was in front of Tommy Dorsey, Duke Ellington or any of the other stylish outfits of that era.

It would be hard to find fault with Carole Simpson for her abilities as a presenter. After all, it's what she does for a living. She was smooth, enjoyable, and rather funny at times.

With style, grace and humor, she read such works as "A Christmas Memory" by Truman Capote, "Christmas,Tuskegee Style" by Johnnie Lou Lockett, "Leo Buscaglia's "Two Festivals of Light" and the perennial "Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus" by Francis P. Church.

At the end, when she departed from the text of John Masefield's "Christmas at Sea" to make a personal statement, she totally charmed the entire house.

If it wouldn't be a sad waste of a good television journalist, I'd say she should spend more time on the stage.

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