Cantori Christmas concert returns with fresh takes, old favorites

Music is as intrinsic to the holiday season as Santa Claus and Christmas trees. From Michael Bublé’s Christmas crooning to more traditional hymns, there’s a song out there that can warm any heart, despite the brisk weather. The Cantori Choral Ensemble is doing their part to spread holiday cheer with “Carols of the Nativity,” the return of the group’s annual Christmas concert.

“I think the Christmas season is the most wonderful season of the year,” said Agnes French, the ensemble’s director. “It’s full of expectations and hope and good, all of which we desperately need right now.”

French founded Cantori in 2005, and its first concert celebrated Christmas that year, albeit after the fact on New Year’s Day 2006. The goal remains to celebrate the season with a group of trained vocalists from around the area.

“There’s just so much beautiful Christmas period music,” said Joe Dellinger, one of 12 singers in the current lineup. He praised French’s ear for selecting “rapturous” music. “They’re very melodic and the harmonies are lush and beautiful.”

The set includes popular carols such as “O’ Little Town of Bethlehem,” accompanied by a string quartet, wind chimes and a soprano saxophone. French said the result elicits an “otherworldly feeling.”

“You just feel like you’re out in the plains of Bethlehem,” she said. “It’s a haunting sound.”

The ensemble’s interpretation of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” aims to spark similarly vivid emotions with a solo cellist humming along in the background.

“We’re doing the most innovative arrangements of some of these Christmas carols I think I’ve ever heard,” French said.

‘Season of beauty’

“The First Noel” brings flute, clarinet and a string quartet into the mix, an interpretation of the song French says might be hard to recognize until more familiar aspects appear near the end. “He is Born” features four-hand piano and a more overtly celebratory tone. The ensemble also plans to bring to life William Blake’s poem, “The Lamb,” with an a capella arrangement.

Other songs include “Bring a Torch” from 17th-century France, and a climactic rendition of “Silent Night” complete with a soaring piano solo. The concert also features some text readings woven through to provide context for the songs and the season.

“I like to tell a story with my concerts,” French said, adding the ensemble’s Christmas effort chronicles humanity’s longing for a savior and the story of Jesus within that.

Dellinger said the concert naturally complements the social and artistic endeavors — plays, readings and other forms of music — that make Christmastime such a wonderful time of year.

“It’s a season for so much emotional pleasure. It’s a season of beauty,” he said. “It’s a season that so many people celebrate together. It brings everybody together.”

The 2017 Christmas concert marks the ensemble’s first time charging for admission. French said it was a necessary change as donations could no longer cover rising expenses, but the ensemble’s ideals remain unchanged.

The director’s vision for “Carols of the Nativity” heralds a heartwarming and uplifting experience that underscores the larger meaning behind this time of year.

“Christmas is the only time you hear choral music when you turn on the radio. Choral music just makes Christmas,” she said. “People crave that.”

Want to go?

“Carols of the Nativity” runs 4 p.m. Dec. 3 at Walnut Hills Baptist Church, 1014 Jamestown Road.

Tickets are $15 in advance or $20 at the door; students are $5 in advance or $10 at the door. Advance tickets are available by mailing checks to Cantori Choral Ensemble, 3341 Derby Lane, Williamsburg, VA, 23185. The deadline for checks is Dec. 1; receipts will be emailed.

Birkenmeyer can be reached by phone at 757-790-3029.

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