Part of the attraction of ChoralArt’s annual “Christmas at the Cathedral” program is the deftness with which it balances freshness and predictability. You can count on certain touches – mainly, a format in which the choir opens and closes the concert in the aisles of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, with an expansive setting of “Silent Night” as the finale, instrumental support from the Portland Brass Quintet, and a sing-along section – but the main works change with each installment.

This year’s presentation proved a pleasing mixture of antiquities, time-honored chestnuts and modern works by a Norwegian-born, American-trained composer, Ola Gjeilo, Americans Kevin Siegfried and Canadian Paul Halley.

The choir’s opening is always effective, particularly for listeners in the center pews, who are surrounded by choristers. Robert Russell, ChoralArt’s director, made the most of the antiphonal possibilities, starting “Mary Walks Amid the Thorn” with solo tenor Darrell Leighton singing the work’s chantlike passages, with a male ensemble responding with folk-tinged verses.

That work morphed into a very different sort of call-and-response piece, the African-American spiritual “Mary Had a Baby,” in which alto Aileen Andrews sang the suitably throaty main vocal line. And from there it was back to 16th-century Europe for a Latin setting, “Personet Hodie Voces Puerulae” (“Let Youthful Voices Resound, Praising Joyously”).

Actually, the altar itself was obscured by large white acoustical panels, meant to reflect the choir’s sound into the nave. The sound was focused and robust, so maybe the panels are worth the trade-off in visual beauty.

The modern works were varied in style, but accessible. The appeal of Gjeilo’s “Serenity” was its meditative choral writing, performed here with a lovely, silken blend, and a graceful solo horn line played by John Boden.


In Siegfried’s “Vidimus Stellam” (“We Have Seen the Star”), the choir gave an alluring account of the work’s shimmering, mysterious outer movements, and a suitably bright, celebratory reading of the central “Hodie Christus Natus Est” (“Today Christ is Born”).

Halley’s “The Rain is Over and Gone” is essentially a jazz-gospel piece for solo soprano, choir, piano and percussion. Molly Harmon, who is heard often as a soprano soloist, showed here that she is a powerful gospel singer as well.

Another tradition of these concerts is to intersperse instrumental interludes between sections of the program. Christopher Pelonzi, the cathedral’s organist, was heard to good effect in an improvisation on “What Child Is This?” and a version of the Toccata from Widor’s Organ Symphony No. 5, fleshed out with a choral line. And the Portland Brass Quintet offered entertaining performances of works by Gabrieli, Brahms and Bach, as well as Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmastime Is Here” and a zesty version of “Jingle Bells.”

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

Twitter: kozinn

Correction: This review was updated at 1:31 p.m. on Dec. 8, 2017 to clarify that Paul Halley is a Canadian composer.

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