The Choral Art Society’s annual “Christmas at the Cathedral” concerts, at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Portland, are as fine a way as you could want to begin the holiday season. Robert Russell, the society’s music director, typically assembles a program that draws on the full range of Christmas works, from medieval chant and early polyphony, to comparatively recent settings.

He also offers a careful balance of festive cheer and sober devotion, as well as favorites and novelties. And he begins and ends the concerts – which were performed twice on Saturday and twice on Sunday – with a touch of simple but musically and visually compelling choreography that involves having his well-polished choir sing while surrounding most of the audience.

The Saturday evening concert began with the cathedral nearly dark, virtually the only light coming from candles held by three sopranos, standing toward the back of the nave to sing a pair of Latin carols – “Angelus ad Virginem” and “Verbum Caro Factum Est” – from the 13th and 14th centuries. A brass fanfare then introduced another anonymous carol, “Personent Hodie Voces Puerulae,” presented in a Renaissance setting and sung by the full choir, which had quietly materialized in the aisles as the lights went up.

There is a lot to be said for being enveloped in this choir’s sound, if only for a moment before the choristers marched toward the front of the church. The concert’s finale was even more effective. Again, the lights were dimmed as choristers holding candles filed through the aisles. Once they were again surrounding the central pews, they gave a rich, velvety rendering of “Silent Night,” first in German, then in English.

Each half of the program included a gracefully sung Mendelssohn setting – “Verleih Uns Frieden Gnädiglich” (“Mercifully Grant Us Peace”) on the first part, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” on the second, as well as a group of carols scored for brass and played by the Portland Brass Quintet. When the quintet played well, it was terrific, but intonation problems, which grew more frequent in the second half, tarnished several of the group’s performances. The brass players also accompanied several of the choral works, as did Dan Moore, the choir’s organist and pianist.

The first part of the concert ended with excerpts from Handel’s “Messiah” – the Overtures, which sounds fascinatingly peculiar in a brass arrangement, and three choruses, “And the Glory of the Lord,” “For Unto Us a Child is Born” and “Hallelujah.” The performances, beautifully burnished but also robust, left a listener wondering why a city with a choir of this caliber and a very good orchestra does not present the complete work as an annual attraction, either at Christmas or Easter (for which “Messiah” was actually composed). This year, “Messiah” mavens can participate in the Choral Art Society’s annual sing-along, next Monday. But sing-alongs are not the same as full-fledged performances.

After the intermission, Russell led the choir in a handful of 20th-century works before turning his attention to favorite carols. Particularly striking were Richard Dirksen’s richly harmonized “Welcome All Wonders” and an appealing Gustav Holst oddity, “Christmas Day,” which weaves together several English carols, sequentially and, at one point, simultaneously.

A tuneful “Ave Verum,” by the Welsh composer (and former member of Soft Machine, the progressive rock band) Sir Karl Jenkins, was presented in a duet version, with lovely performances by Sarah Bailey, soprano, and Andrea Graichen, mezzo-soprano. And Robert Ray’s “He Never Failed Me Yet” brought a hint of Gospel verve to the program, with contralto Aileen Andrews giving a ruggedly bluesy account of the solo line.

The Choral Art Society presents its annual Handel “Messiah” sing-along at Woodfords Congregational Church on Dec. 14, and “An Epiphany Celebration” at Williston-Immanuel United Church on Jan. 3.

Allan Kozinn is a former music critic and culture writer for The New York Times who lives in Portland. He can be contacted at:

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