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For the first time in nearly two years after a pandemic that sounded the death knell for countless other performing artists and ensembles, The Washington Chorus is reuniting this month with audiences for its treasured family holiday concert.
A crowd thinned out by Covid scares was quick to join in the revelry on Thursday at Strathmore’s concert hall, chanting — mostly in tune — to the familiar hymns “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “Silent Night.” After a rude interruption by Santa, who chalked up the rather paltry size of his bag to the popularity of gift cards nowadays, artistic director Eugene Rogers brought concertgoers to their feet for a “reindeer jog.” The sequence of moves involved miming fun gestures and shaking keys that doubled as sleigh bells while singing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” which the chorus then smartly interspersed with “A Holly Jolly Christmas.”
But some of the most poignant moments came later in the evening, with soprano Aundi Marie Moore’s take on the spirituals “Sweet Little Jesus Boy” and “Mary Had a Baby,” her voice oscillating comfortably between opera, musical theater and liturgical music. Rogers, the chorus’s first Black conductor, prefaced that chapter by recalling how one of his favorite memories growing up was singing spirituals at his local church in Virginia. He has previously enlisted Moore, for the short film “Cantata for a More Hopeful Tomorrow” released in February about an African American couple separated due to the pandemic, set to a score commissioned from composer Damien Geter that also features the chorus and cellist Seth Parker Woods.
It’s been so long since the 160 singers filled with their songs the same air breathed by a live audience that executive director Stephen Beaudoin has kept a count: 707 days. He stopped crossing off the time on Thursday, with the first of a series of “A Candlelight Christmas” shows at The Music Center at Strathmore that will also be reprised at the Kennedy Center. “As you can imagine, returning to live and in-person performances is a rather complex affair right now,” Beaudoin says in thanking sponsors, venues, staff, stage managers and technicians for their “tenacity, brilliance and creativity.”
In a sign of the times, students from Reservoir High School in the nearby town of Fulton were unable to participate in a planned side-by-side performance with the chorus at Strathmore due to a spike in Covid numbers in Howard County. But the Duke Ellington School of the Arts Concert Choir will join in the Kennedy Center shows, marking the 30th year children sang alongside the two-time Grammy winners in a special program.
The concert replete with tradition began solemnly, the house lights dimmed as the singers filed down the aisles in a procession, dressed all in black and each holding a flickering — albeit electric —candle. There was a handbell choir and soprano Deena Tumeh then soloed in the first carol, “Once in Royal David’s City.” Only Rogers, the soloists and instrumentalists from the National Brass and Percussion Ensemble were unmasked. The singers, accompanied by Paul Byssainthe, Jr. on organ and piano, had specially designed masks that protruded outward just enough so that they wouldn’t stick to their faces. As part of the new normal, Rogers prefaced the interactive highlights with a cautionary “participate at your own comfort level.” But the eager audience chanted and danced the night away before thanking the performers on stage with a standing ovation.
Get ready for some holiday cheer and catch The Washington Chorus in its “A Candlelight Christmas,” a treasured DC tradition, on December 17 at 8 p.m. and December 23 at 3 p.m. at The Music Center at Strathmore. Purchase tickets online here or by calling the Strathmore box office at 301-581-5100. The program repeats at the Kennedy Center on December 19 and December 21 at 7 p.m., as well as on December 22 at 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Purchase tickets here or by calling the Kennedy Center box office at 202-467-4600. Proof of vaccination against Covid-19 or a negative PCR test taken within 72 hours from the start of the performance is required for entry at both locations.