I think I heard a New England premiere of Australian Christmas carols by William James (not the philosopher) Friday at the Winslow Homer Center for the Arts at Scarborough High School. One can’t be sure, but it took Rob Westerberg, director of the Portland Community Chorus, eight months to get the music from an Australian publisher who didn’t ship to the United States.

The carols, written between 1948 and 1957, were worth the wait, if only as cultural artifacts showing how English traditions were modified by Australia’s summertime Christmas. They are also good holiday music, pleasantly varied in style and content, and enthusiastically sung by the chorus.

James wrote the music, which is virtually indistinguishable from its English models, but the lyrics by John Wheeler are something else again – as deliberately Australian as possible.

In one of the best of the set of eight, “Carol of the Birds,” he enumerates the species, from currawongs to brolgas, that might be singing and dancing on Christmas. They seem better metaphors for the spiritual than reindeer or elves. “The Three Drovers” who see a star on the plains where the black swans are flying are more similar to the shepherds and wise men of the Gospels than anything in the Northern Hemisphere.

All in all, a welcome addition to the Christmas repertoire from Down Under.

The rest of the program was equally well sung, with precise delineation of parts and effective dynamics, especially the a cappella numbers such as the Coventry Carol and sections of “In the Bleak Midwinter.” The piano accompaniments, by Jan Thomas, were delicate and supportive of the singers, except when she had to double for an orchestra in the “Hallelujah Chorus.”

In addition to the Australian carols, the program offered another novelty – “The Carolers at My Door,” by Caroline Mallonee, written when she was 14 in response to a 1989 plea from Garrison Keillor for a new Christmas carol. Her entry is not only musically precocious but more effective emotionally than many works by more mature composers.

My favorite of the evening was a brilliant rendering of Stephen Hatfield’s “Jabula Jesu,” based on an African folk song. It is difficult music, with elaborate rhythms, polyphony, call and response and changing dynamics, all at a rapid pace. The chorus made it an ode to joy.

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

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