Now, these folks know how to do a Christmas concert right.
The Crossing's annual holiday program is reliably one of the loveliest musical events of the year in Philadelphia: masses of candles glowing invitingly on the windowsills, an hour-plus program sung with no intermission to break the spell, a postconcert reception where the musicians are genuinely happy to meet you.
On Friday at the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, this terrific choir lived up to every expectation, and the packed house was moved to give a cheering ovation even after a finale that was hushed with awe rather than pumped with adrenaline.
Not that there was any lack of thrills: the gentle lines cascading over each other at the opening of Bo Holten's "First Snow"; the feral, skirling unison lines in James MacMillan's "Seinte Mari moder milde," gradually dividing into parts as the music progresses; Benjamin C.S. Boyle's "Three Carols of Wintertide," with its barbershop-quartet-through-a-kaleidoscope harmonies; the manic repetitions and mercurial energy of Joby Talbot's "The Wishing Tree"; the odd, sometimes seasick dissonances Thomas Adès applied to "The Fayrfax Carol," made bearable by the Crossing's scrupulous tuning.
The surprise of the evening was organist Scott Dettra beginning each set with music about three centuries older than you expect to hear at a Crossing concert: chorale preludes by Dietrich Buxtehude, the composer the young J.S. Bach walked halfway across Germany to hear. For me, the single most exciting point of the evening was Dettra's glorious blaze through Buxtehude's fantasia on the hymn tune "Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern" ("How brightly shines the morning star"), which had me grinning uncontrollably.
For all the ingenuity, beauty, and even strangeness in this program, there were a few pieces - Robert Convery's "Christmas Daybreak," Kenneth Leighton's "O leave your sheep," Andrew Gant's "What Child is This" - that weren't much more than simple part-songs, maybe dressed up with some imitation between the lines. It's the sort of thing a volunteer church choir might work up for Christmas Eve. Nally and his singers never condescended to this music, never let it cloy or milked it for sentiment; they simply gave it the same respect and professionalism they always give.
Then there were the gentle marvels of Eriks Ešenvalds, the thinking person's Eric Whitacre and one of the Crossing's favorite composers. We heard two pieces about the wonders of the winter sky, "Northern Lights" and "Stars," haloed by the candlelike glow of tuned water glasses and handheld chimes, the latter ending the concert with such bewitching wonder that I simply forgot to take notes.