The Annapolis Chorale and Annapolis Chamber Orchestra put on "A Celebration of Christmas" concert last week at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts that was well played and beautifully sung.
The sold-out program - which included an exciting mix of music, some not associated with the holiday - showcased soprano Amy Cofield, soloist with the Annapolis Chorale in Haydn's Missa Brevis recently at Carnegie Hall. Also featured was actor Harley Venton as guest reader, telling enchanting holiday stories focused on whimsical and philosophical aspects of Christmas.
The stage was set for Christmas with a large decorated tree left from continuing performances of The Nutcracker by Ballet Theatre of Maryland. The ballet's set requirements made it impossible for the stage crew to remove the tree to make room for the acoustical shell, thus reducing the bright, live sound the chorale usually projects.
The program opened with an assortment of familiar carols in Jeff Tyzik's Holiday Moods Suite. The exciting orchestration revealed the augmented brass and percussion of the expanded orchestra.
Although Tyzik's arrangement lent brilliance to the orchestra, it sometimes overwhelmed the chorus, which sounded uncharacteristically lackluster in the segment.
Still, there were many high moments, including the chorale's performance of Charles Wood's harmonic "Ding Dong Merrily on High," arranged by music director J. Ernest Green, and its intense, richly colored singing of "Torches" by contemporary South African composer John Joubert. The singers also sang a beautiful version of Andrew Carter's arrangement of the French carol "A Maiden Most Gentle."
Another highlight occurred during the final carol singing, when the audience joined in the second choruses of favorites such as "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" and "Joy to the World."
Although I missed hearing more from the chorale, the Annapolis Chamber Orchestra sounded warmer than ever and was imbued with remarkably intense, heartfelt feeling. From its marvelous expanded rendition of Tyzik's collection of traditional carols in Holiday Moods Suite to its rollicking version of Leroy Anderson's "Sleigh Ride" and the lovely "Coventry Carol," the orchestra remained in top form.
The orchestra's performance of Bizet's "L'Arlesienne" - an unusual and fascinating inclusion in this holiday program - was especially moving. Under Green, the orchestra brought glitter and freshness to Calvin Custer's "It's Christmastime" with its medley of prosaic Christmas pop tunes.
As he does with his singers, Green coaxed such warm feelings from the orchestra that some of us in the audience recalled distant childhood memories with "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" and felt nostalgic at "Silver Bells" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas."
Holiday sentiments were well expressed by Venton, who has appeared on television's Law and Order, in a selection of readings that included Dylan Thomas' "A Child's Christmas in Wales," "A Visit from St. Nicholas" and Henry van Dyke's "Keeping Christmas."
Reigning Friday evening was Cofield, the soprano soloist who portrayed Sarah Brown in Annapolis Chorale's 1999 Guys and Dolls and who a few weeks ago made her Carnegie Hall debut with the chorale. Cofield's art was beautifully displayed in a stunning "Gesu Bambino" and, later, in "O Holy Night," as she easily floated gorgeous notes above the orchestra.
The Annapolis Chorale will continue celebrating the holiday season in the way it does best, by singing with the Annapolis Chamber Orchestra Saturday evening in a full performance of Handel's Messiah and in a shorter version followed by carols Sunday afternoon at historic St. Anne's Episcopal Church in downtown Annapolis.
Information or tickets: chorale office, 410-263-1906.