The Baltimore Choral Arts Society, accustomed to receiving plaudits from audiences and critics, earned an unusual acknowledgment of its talents - an Emmy Award.
Christmas with Choral Arts, produced and broadcast on WMAR-TV, received the 2005 award in the "special events coverage" category at the 48th annual Emmy Awards presented earlier this month by the National Capital Chesapeake Bay Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.
"Most of the time, the entries in this category are things like the pope's visit or some other special news-type event," said Fran Murphy, president of the chapter.
"The Choral Arts program must have seemed like a breath of fresh air to the judges."
The chapter includes commercial and public TV stations in the Baltimore-Washington area.
"It's very cool," Choral Arts music director Tom Hall said of being the subject of a local Emmy-award-winning show. "I'm really happy - particularly for [WMAR's] Keith Nelson, the producer, and Mike Marion, the engineer."
The chorus, which just celebrated its 40th anniversary season, has presented an annual holiday program for more than two decades.
WMAR has produced and televised the show for 10 years.
"We were nominated one other time for an Emmy," Hall said. "You know how people always say, `It's an honor just to be nominated'? Well, it's a lot better to win, I can tell you."
WMAR taped the 90-minute Christmas with Choral Arts program Dec. 6 in Baltimore's Cathedral of Mary Our Queen.
The guest artist for the concert was the Grammy Award- winning Sweet Honey in the Rock, the African-American female ensemble.
WMAR news anchors MaryBeth Marsden and Brian Wood read poetical texts that were interspersed in the program.
Nelson, Marion and Hall edited the show into an hour format that was broadcast on Christmas Eve and two more times Christmas Day.
"According to the ratings, we approached half a million viewers," Hall said. "To get that many eyeballs for even part of an hour is great."
(The concert also aired on radio - WYPR broadcast it live, WBJC on tape.)
"Quite honestly, for a program like this to be on a commercial station in this day and age is extraordinary," Murphy said.
Although cultural programming is relatively common on public television, it has long been a rarity on commercial channels.
"I can't identify any other chorus or orchestra that has a program on commercial television, except the Boston Pops' July Fourth concert on CBS," Hall said.
"What I'm most proud about is that the show gets classical Christmas music on commercial television," he said. "There's some Mendelssohn, Handel, Bach and Haydn. It's not `Sleigh Ride' and `Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.' "
The local Emmys were judged by panels assembled by National Academy chapters in other TV markets, including Chicago, Cleveland and San Francisco.
There were five entries in the "special events" category for the 2005 Emmys, two of them chosen as nominees.
Competing with Christmas with Choral Arts was National Cherry Blossom Festival Parade, broadcast by the Washington area's NewsChannel 8.
The holiday program has proven to be a strong public relations tool for Choral Arts over the years.
It should be even more marketable with its new "Emmy Award-winning" tag. (The 2006 event will be held in the renovated Basilica of the Assumption Dec. 6.)
"Because television has such an incredible reach, a lot of people hear about us for the first time from the TV broadcast and then come to our concerts," Hall said.
"It certainly helps with fundraising and audience development. It's one of our biggest pluses."
Reaching people who might otherwise never think of going to a choral concert is a goal of the holiday event.
"We try to make it really accessible," Hall said. "I once received a letter from a woman who said `I saw your concert on TV - are your concerts open to the public?' I sent her two tickets to the next show."