The weather was bleak; the traffic was awful, and it was hard not to feel thoroughly grumpy by the time we'd made it to a downtown Seattle...

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The weather was bleak; the traffic was awful, and it was hard not to feel thoroughly grumpy by the time we’d made it to a downtown Seattle church smack in the middle of Friday-night holiday-shopping madness.

Everything changed when the chorus arrived. “Breathe. Settle in. Relax,” urged the program notes for this year’s Christmas concert at Plymouth Congregational Church by Choral Arts, an astonishingly good professional chorus of 22 singers whose whole is considerably more than the sum of their parts. The program notes were right: It’s good advice, at this or any time of year.

What Choral Arts provided was an uninterrupted single hour of perfectly chosen music of several different centuries and styles, with the pieces expertly strung together with interludes by pianist Libby Watrous (Bob McCaffery-Lent supported on the guitar). For most classical groups, that hour would be merely the first half of a concert, to be followed by an intermission in which concertgoers burned their tonsils trying to consume indifferent coffee in a great hurry, and then the second half of the program.

But an hourlong concert in which people are really paying attention, and the singers are on their mettle, is a remarkably good concept that does Mies van der Rohe’s famous dictum proud (“Less is more”). Director Robert Bode had big shoes to fill when he took over Choral Arts’ leadership from the group’s founding conductor, Richard Sparks; Friday night’s program made it clear, though, that Bode is the man for the job.

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From medieval chant to a contemporary John David Earnest setting of one of Bode’s own lyrics, the program wove together widely varied musical threads whose high points included John Gardner’s snappy arrangement of “Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day,” and Morten Lauridsen’s radiant “O Nata Lux.” No fear of sagging pitch with Choral Arts: When the piano returned after lengthy a cappella interludes, the singers were right on (a couple of times the ensemble actually was just a hair sharp). The chorus’ blend is so pure that the rich chords seem to float, suspended on the air.

When the brief audience singalong ended and Choral Arts’ final song faded into silence, the audience drew itself up for a standing ovation. What a gift, that perfect little hour of music.

Melinda Bargreen:

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