The Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra broke with a decades-long tradition Saturday night in its holiday concert, “A Cathedral Christmas” at Cathedral of Christ the King. For unto us a child wasn’t born, and he did not reign forever and ever. It was festive and sacred, but instead of offering Handel’s worthy, yet worn-out oratorio “The Messiah,” conductor and musical director Scott Terrell assembled a lofty, lovely evening of alternative seasonal masterworks.
The orchestra sounded beautiful in the solely instrumental pieces: Stokowski’s arrangement of Bach’s “Sheep May Safely Graze” and especially in Vaughan Williams’ “Fantasia on Greensleeves,” in which the strings, harp, and flutes blended ravishingly.
But what is a holiday concert without a choir? “A Cathedral Christmas” featured the combined Lexington Chamber Chorale and Ecco Chamber Choir, led by Gary Anderson and Vicki Bell, respectively. They added enormously to this challenging program with their excellent tone production, rhythmic vitality and precise diction. The choir’s a cappella feature, “Pilgrim’s Hymn” by Paulus, was gorgeous, delivered with reverent expression and effulgent sound.
The highlight of the concert came early with the Rutter “Gloria,” a beloved work all too rarely done with the full trappings. Scored for chorus, organ, brass, and percussion, this performance crackled with energy. The choir brought it fully to life, and the brass and percussion were simply wonderful. Jon Johnson played the organ part beautifully, but was too soft in the mix to appreciate fully, both in this piece and throughout the evening.
Gerald Finzi’s “In Terra Pax” introduced the vocal soloists, baritone Jarrett Ott and soprano Sarah Shafer, to the mix of performers, and their contributions to the concert were considerable. Ott’s warm yet ringing voice and concise, expressive delivery of the text constituted a world-class performance, and Shafer’s lovely, limpid singing was also very effective. They and the choir were ably supported in this work by the Philharmonic’s gorgeous strings and the superb artistry of Elaine Humphreys Cook at the harp.
Vaughan Williams’ “Fantasia on Christmas Carols” featured a cello monody elegantly rendered by Benjamin Karp, and more fabulous singing by Ott, and the choir as well.
The concert ended with excerpts from Bach’s “Magnificat,” a sublime work so often over-shadowed by “Messiah.” The chorus successfully negotiated the treacherous fugal textures of Bach’s counterpoint, and the orchestra demonstrated some early-music skills by performing on the Baroque piccolo trumpet and the oboe d’amore. These specialty instruments are notoriously hard to play, especially in matters of tuning, and the Philharmonic’s pros acquitted themselves with honor, especially oboist David Powell. Karp and Ott made a highlight out of the “Quia Fecit” movement. It sometimes seemed that Terrell was trying to urge fleeter tempos to no avail, but no matter. The ensemble sounded beautiful in the shimmering ambiance of the cathedral.
Terrell should consider this refreshing program a real triumph. While the orchestra had been moving away from “Messiah” for several years, presenting it in part with other works, this was the first time in decades the Philharmonic set the work aside completely at its main holiday concert. But there had already been two high-profile, capably performed “Messiahs” in Lexington this season. We do not require a third. I hope the Philharmonic will continue down this path and make a new tradition of offering the public alternate seasonal masterworks with professional polish and festive spirit.