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Region's musical arts scene pitch-perfect start to holidays

Sally and I were discussing the recent "Christmas at the Cathedral" concert of the Choral Arts Society with friends recently. We all agreed it was an extraordinary concert, even judged by the high standards for which Choral Arts and its director Robert Russell are known.

As one of our friends noted, music that beautiful feeds the soul. How right she is.

This holiday season we have been fortunate to experience several different holiday music events -- a tribute to the strength and variety of the musical arts scene in the greater Portland area.

For us the Choral Arts Society Concert at St. Luke's in Portland is the official kick-off of the Christmas season. The Episcopal cathedral is an impressive venue with its immaculate interior, towering arches and "pin-dropping" acoustics.

This concert traditionally opens with the Personent Hodie sung by the choir positioned throughout the church, virtually circling the audience. The only lighting comes from the small candle each member carries. The feeling of intimacy and majesty is inspiring. It helps that this particular piece of music is one of the most haunting in the choral repertoire.

Russell balances the serious and the traditional, always with at least one unique offering, this year the "Cantante Domino" by Vytautus Miskinis. The concert closes with "Silent Night," also sung by candlelight with the choir among us. It is breathtaking.

I leave these concerts each year in awe of the power of choral artistry.

Our next holiday concert was very different but no less entertaining: Magic of Christmas with the Portland Symphony Orchestra. Magic has been a feature of the PSO for almost thirty years.

Under the baton of Music Director Robert Moody, the concert has been wonderfully refocused. Moody blends the best of the traditional such as the always spirited "Sleighbells" and carol sing along with such new traditions as the collaboration with the Maine State Puppet Theater for a clever, much-abridged version of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol."

This is a concert for all ages, and it is a particular delight to see all of the young families out for a holiday treat.

The PSO does not disappoint. Moody is the perfect host and maestro, dispensing much cheer and good humor along with a pace that never lags. The final number this year was "Let There Be Peace on Earth." It set just the right tone as we all ventured out into the (rainy) night.

Often at this time of year we are traveling to the West Coast where both daughters and their husbands reside. This year, however, we will have a quiet Christmas at home and thus have been able to take in more than just the early holiday concerts -- two more, in fact, in this past week.

On Tuesday evening we went to the Congregational Church we attend in Cumberland Center to hear the Greely High School Chorus' concert.

The chorus is under the direction of Sarah Johnson, a soloist with the Choral Arts Society. She has introduced some quite ambitious music into the normal high school program. The highlight was two choral pieces from Benjamin Britten. The concert had a warm community feel in the intimate setting of a lovely church.

Our final concert was much more informal -- the annual holiday sing-along that members of the Choral Arts Society perform each year at this time at the First Parish Church in Portland. Robert Russell led us in a rousing set of well-known carols.

Unlike some other venues we have attended where just one verse is sung, Russell let us sing multiple verses of all of the carols, something that I find really satisfying. It was the kind of concert to get one's blood flowing. The rendition of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" was particularly rousing.

Russell asked for audience volunteers to do solo parts. The volunteers were lively -- several youngsters gamely taking on what could have been their first solos, a group of young women in the balcony bringing us "seven swans a swimming" with elegance, and two large gentlemen leaping up appropriately for "ten lords a leaping." I just wish my video camera had been handy.

So here I am in the final week before Christmas feeling brimful of good cheer and good spirit -- and I wanted to share it with you.

I hope each of you will have the chance to do things that bring you joy in this holiday season. Such things are the real gifts of the season -- to be treasured now and throughout the year. Merry Christmas and happy holidays to all.