The Choral Art Society’s Christmas in the Cathedral Concert Saturday night at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception bodes well for this season’s musical offerings. It was, with the exception of some musical humor by the Portland Brass Quintet, appropriately joyful and serious. I kept thinking of the Bob Dylan line: “Let us not speak falsely now, the hour is getting late.”

This year’s concert had just about everything right; the balance between old and new, a fine arrangement of the Bach Magnificat by Travis Ramsey, just enough favorites, perfectly sung, and an atmosphere of reverent mystery at beginning and end. Even the length was ideal.

The Choral Art Singers were in great form, with a reinforced bass section, not quite as powerful yet as the Red Army Chorus, but getting close. Director Robert Russell has his choir working more closely together than ever before.

The processional was longer than usual, with two works added to the now traditional “Personent hodie voces puerulae” (1582). “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” was an atmospheric 11th century Gregorian chant, followed by the “Ave Maria” of Tomas Luis da Victoria (c.1549-1611), in which the part singing can only be described as angelic.

With the singers onstage came John Tavener’s “Song for Athene,” which was sung at Princess Diana’s funeral, and a setting of Psalm 148 by Gustav Holst, more effectively written than his famous “The Planets.” As just one example, at the conclusion of the work, the powerful bass of the organ suddenly stops, leaving the ear to focus more intently on the equally powerful chorus.

Ramsey’s arrangement of the Bach Magnificat was just right for a Christmas concert, short, sweet and magnificent, with the Brass Quintet playing the orchestral interludes as Bach would have liked to hear them.

After intermission came three fine new works, beginning with a Cantate Domino by Lithuanian composer Vytautas Miskinis, which is tonal but achieves a “modern” effect by its rhythmical introduction of the voice lines.

“Jesus Christ the Apple Tree,” by Elizabeth Poston, is a setting of a New England poem in “Divine Hymns or Spiritual Songs” of 1784. Haunting simplicity in the use of a few soprano voices, augmented by the chorus in the central verses, is an apt description of its ethereal mood.

The “Three Appalachian Carols” of Gwyneth Walker are equally well composed in an expressionist style. The waltz-like “Cherry Tree Carol” has tormented episodes due to Joseph’s jealousy of the Holy Ghost.

Three tenors and three sopranos, accompanied by French horn, combine a charming naivety with some sinister premonitions in “Jesus, Jesus, rest your head,” while “Wondrous Love” is set to a stirring march, in which a perpetuum mobile stands in for eternity.

The audience was invited to sing two verses of “Unto Us is Born a Son,” from “Piae Cantiones” (1582) Not many knew the tune, but perhaps they will, since it seems as catchy and easy to sing as most carols.

The Brass Quintet lightened the atmosphere with clever and funny arrangements – swing, Dixieland and Latin – of four traditional Christmas carols.

After a lively “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” the candle-lit recessional was a moving performance of “Silent Night”  with the first verse, In German, and a descant beautifully sung by Laura Whitney.


Christopher Hyde’s Classical Beat column appears in the Maine Sunday Telegram. He can be reached at: [email protected]