Robert Russell has outdone himself on this year’s Christmas in the Cathedral at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Portland. The director of the Choral Art Society has increased the number of basses in the choir, found several marvelous soloists and selected a delightful program that gives equal weight to the sacred and profane, ancient and modern, aspects of the holiday.

He has also given full value to the acoustics of the cathedral. On Saturday night the opening “Rorando coeli” of Jan Campanus Vodnansky (1572-1622), an echo chorus with a second choir echoing each phrase, surrounded the listener with music seemingly coming from every direction.

It was followed by an equally marvelous “Nunc gaudeant” by Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) sung perfectly by Molly Harmon.

The processional, “Personent hodie voces puerulae,” led to a highly unusual “Magnificat” by James Whitbourne (b. 1963) during which loud cymbals threw off shards of sound, picked up by organ and chorus. Here the basses really came into their own, but the outstanding feature of the work was the tenor voice of Aaren Rivard, full and clear, with the power to fill the entire cathedral at any pitch.

The Portland Brass Quintet, in addition to its cleverly arranged Christmas medleys, showed a serious side in a fine performance of Bach’s Contrapunctus IX from “The Art of Fugue.”

The piece de resistance of the evening was Benjamin Britten’s “A Ceremony of Carols” for harp and female choir, written in 1942, but based upon texts from sources of the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries. The ceremony is as evocative of mood and atmosphere as any of Britten’s operas.

Molly Nichols’ accompaniment and solo interlude were enough to make one wonder why all choral music isn’t written for the harp instead of the piano. It is more delicate, does not interfere with perfect intervals among the voices and has a texture all its own.

Britten’s harp interlude, based upon “Hodie Christus natus est,” was a pure delight, or would have been if someone had not been using a cellphone nearby. If a person cannot live without a hit from his mini walkie-talkie, why not stay home with it and save the cost of a ticket?

The second half of the program was more traditional Christmas fare, but equally well done, including a fine “Sanctus” by Gabriel Faure that sounded as if he had been listening to Adolphe Adam’s “O Holy Night.” The resemblance was enhanced by the use of flute voices on the organ.

Russell showed his attention to the cathedral’s acoustics once again in the solo part of “Once in David’s Royal City,” angelically sung by treble soloist Lillian Black, standing about halfway down the center aisle. Although she was only a few feet away, her voice sounded as if it were coming from all sides, a striking illusion.

The final candle-lit “Silent Night,” with solos by Harmon and Heidi Seitz, was as moving as ever. The audience began applauding during the meditation after the candles had gone out, instead of waiting for the house lights to go on, which limited its effect somewhat.

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

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