Kansas City Chorale’s “A Ceremony of Carols” is Joyful and Sophisticated.

I have never heard an audience boo and hiss during a concert before. But folks groaned when artistic director Charles Bruffy said they were cutting some songs from the Kansas City Chorale’s program during their sold out Friday concert, even though he announced the change wearing a festive, light-up stocking hat. The audience was not pleased at a reduction to their entertainment and no wonder: after a stunning opening performance of Benjamin Britten’s “A Ceremony of Carols,” I didn’t want the experience shortened, either.

Still, the ninety-minute no-intermission performance of primarily English carols and American tunes gave the audience more than enough variety to leave sufficiently stuffed with holiday cheer (and cookies from the reception afterward) and satisfied with the excellence of the performance from the Grammy Award-winning ensemble. Their latest album, “Artifact,” is currently in the running for a Grammy Award, too.

This was the ensemble’s second performance of five this week, and spirits were high as they smiled with joy and sincerity throughout the show. They performed at Rolling Hills Presbyterian Church, where they rehearse regularly and where Bruffy has served as director of music for 25 years, so they knew how to take full advantage of the space’s acoustics.

Harpist Tabitha Reist Steiner, the Chorale’s special guest, contributed sophistication and grace to Britten’s “Ceremony,” a wonderfully crafted piece, originally written for children’s choir. Britten used mostly Middle English texts, the language flexing in and out of familiarity and colored with surprising chords and textures. The “Wolcom Yole!” was as hearty a Midwest welcome as you might hear at your own holiday party, contrasted beautifully with “There is No Rose,” with its pulsing harp drone and introspective mood. Her solo interlude was impeccably rendered.

The soloists gave fine, joyous performances: Joanna Ehlers, Alyssa Toepfer, Lindsey Lang, Frank Fleschner, and Meredith Barreth. Bruffy got out of the way for these movements, seating himself in the first pew so the soloists could stand center and shine. I appreciated watching Lang and Fleschner’s communication across the ensemble and melding their voices during “In Freezing Winter Night.”

“Balulalow” is an ancient lullaby and the chorus and soloist Toepfer “sanges sweit,” indeed. The ensemble had electrified energy during “As Dew in Aprille” and impressive diction during “This Little Babe,” the lines leaping and twisting as though caught in a bracing wind coursing along the ragged English coast, full of vim.

“Deo Gracias,” with its grooving syncopations, vibrant chords and ferocious harp glissandi, was a straight up banger, regrettably just two minutes long, and the recessional chant ended the work. If I’d had my druthers, a perfect concert would have just been hearing the Britten repeated, instead of messing about with arrangements of popular Christmas tunes.

Nevertheless, who doesn’t love some good old fashion Christmas-themed onomatopoeia? Bells, drums, trumpets, harking: it’s a noisy holiday. This affinity was fulfilled threefold with a jazz choir arrangement of “Ding, Dong Merrily On High” by Howard Helvey, the opening of Gene Puerling’s arrangement to “Deck the Halls” (a bewildering pastiche of changing styles and tempos) and Gordon Langford’s hilarious version of “Jingle Bells,” originally for the King’s Singers.

More traditional versions of “The Holly and the Ivy” and “I Saw Three Ships” framed a new arrangement of “Silent Night” by KCChorale bass Ed Frazier Davis, written last year as a gift to Bruffy and the ensemble. (It received its official premiere at Tuesday night’s show.) Besides the Britten, this was the most challenging piece on the program for both the choir and the audience with dense chords, changing tonalities and delayed cadences, offering unexpected turns with each verse and for nearly every line.

Steiner joined the chorus again for Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Fantasia on Christmas Carols” (standing in for a full orchestra) and Vince Guaraldi’s modern classic “Christmas Time Is Here” (also originally conceived for children’s voices). Baritone Paul Davidson had a steady, persuasive tone during the Vaughan Williams, proclaiming the story and blessings of the season.

The audience enjoyed Bryan Taylor’s solo work in “The Christmas Song,” another jazz choir arrangement, as well as Jennifer Weiman in the heartfelt encore, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

There are a glut entertainment options during December, from traditional to modern, simple to glam, sacred to secular (and a few even profane), but while most of joy-filled, not many are as sophisticated as the annual presentation from the Kansas City Chorale.

Reviewed Friday December 13, 2019 at Rolling Hills Presbyterian Church. Kansas City Chorale repeats this program 2 PM at Country Club United Methodist Church on Sunday December 15. They also performs two shows on December 14: “A Chorale Family Christmas” 1 PM at St. Michael the Archangel and “Holiday Pops” 7:30 PM at 1900 Building.

About The Author: Libby Hanssen

Libby Hanssen

Libby Hanssen covers the performing arts in Kansas City. She maintains the culture blog, “Proust Eats a Sandwich,” and writes poetry and children’s books. She holds a master’s degree in trombone performance from UMKC Conservatory and currently works at UMKC’s Music/Media Library.

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