ChoralART likes to get a jump on the holiday season by making sure that its annual “Christmas at the Cathedral” concert is the first Christmas concert of the year. Exactly how the choir manages to maintain its pride of place is not entirely clear, since 10 days had elapsed between Thanksgiving and this year’s program, on Saturday evening at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Portland. Another choir determined to jump the queue would certainly have had ample time. Or perhaps not. Giving a Christmas concert any sooner might be seen as an unseemly intrusion on the post-Thanksgiving shopping frenzy.

Robert Russell, ChoralART’s conductor, has established several traditions for these concerts, and he honored them fully on Saturday. His programs are typically balanced between the purely devotional and the seasonally cheerful, with a mix of antique sacred settings and 19th-century carols, as well as a few contemporary pieces. The choral music, moreover, is juxtaposed with lively instrumental arrangements, played with energy and measures of both verve and finesse by the Portland Brass Quintet.

A tightly scripted, thoroughly effective theatricality is a tradition of these programs, too, at least in the opening and closing segments. The choir begins, as in past years, with a pair of antiquities, performed by a handful of singers holding candles, both at the transept and just before the sanctuary, in an otherwise darkened cathedral.

This year, these mood-setters were a 13th-century chant, “Veni, Veni, Emmanuel,” sung first in Latin and then in English by two tenors, Brad Longfellow and Simon Smith, as well as a Praetorius hymn setting, “Es ist ein Ros Entsprungen,” for which soprano soloist Molly Harmon was joined by the choir from the back of the cathedral. The full choir then filed into the aisles surrounding the pews to sing, with brass and organ accompaniment, a Renaissance carol, “Personet Hodie Voces Puerulae.”

The finale, again by tradition, is an expansive version of “Silent Night,” first in a lovely solo rendering, in German, by soprano Bryn Sewell, then in English, by the full choir. Another soprano, Heidi Seitz, added a vocalise with the choir on a final verse, before the ensemble finished its account by humming the melody while moving toward the front, and behind the sanctuary.

This year, the choir’s opening sequence was preceded by a magnificently inventive (and, at times, robustly dissonant) improvisation on “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” by the cathedral’s organist, Christopher Pelonzi.

I had not previously heard this organ on its own, and was impressed by its power and color, as well as the way it fills the cathedral. Much as I admire the Kotzschmar organ, it is clearly not the only organ in town worth hearing, and since the cathedral is a much better place to hear organ music than Merrill Auditorium, it would be great to have a recital series there as well.

Another highlight of the program was the premiere of Travis Ramsey’s “On the Night You Were Born,” a work commissioned as part of ChoralART’s celebration of its 45th season. Ramsey, who studied at the University of Southern Maine and Boston University, provided a richly contrapuntal, pointedly emotional work built around Psalm 139 and the title poem, by Nancy Tillman.

It was in the intricacies of the Ramsey work that the choir was at its best. Elsewhere – in the Kyrie and Gloria from Schubert’s Mass in G, and in the opening section of a spiritual, “Glory, Glory, Glory to the Newborn King” – there were moments when it sounded more anemic and less fully blended than it has in other performances.

That said, the spiritual gradually caught fire, and there was much to admire in the choir’s gentle reading of the Sanctus from Gounod’s “Messe Solenelle,” and in semi-staged excerpts from Gian Carlo Menotti’s tuneful Christmas opera, “Amahl and the Night Visitors” (a work that the Williston-Immanuel United Church will present in full on Friday and Saturday). The program also included a sweet-toned performance of Rachmaninoff’s “Vocalise,” sung by Molly Harmon, and arrangements of “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen” and “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” in which the audience was invited to sing along on the first and last verses.

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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