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ASO review: Robert Shaw’s grand legacy lives on in another spirited “Christmas With the ASO”

Norman MacKenzie acted as guest conductor. (Photo by Jeff Roffman)
Norman MacKenzie acted as guest conductor. (Photo by Jeff Roffman)
The ASO's Norman MacKenzie acted as the primary conductor. (Photo by Jeff Roffman)

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, along with the Morehouse Glee Club and the Gwinnett Young Singers, performed the first of its “Christmas With the ASO” concerts on Thursday in Symphony Hall. Most of the program was conducted by Norman Mackenzie, the ASO’s director of choruses, while the directors of the guest choruses — Morehouse’s David Morrow and Gwinnett’s Lynn Urda – led a handful of works performed by their groups.

Every December finds the Atlanta Symphony’s forces involved in a flurry of various concerts of the season. The annual family Christmas concert, now known as “Christmas With the ASO,” is the signature event and the oldest of them all, going back 45 years to when it was created by the late Robert Shaw in his first year as ASO music director in 1967. The seeds of its development go back to Shaw’s experiences with live Christmas Eve radio broadcasts by his Collegiate Chorale and the CBS Symphony Orchestra during the 1940s.

That the format has persisted for so long is not surprising. What Shaw crafted is a concert with a large, arching form, of symphonic scope, in four broad sections. It’s an organic whole. That structural skeleton remains essentially the same today, although some of the individual bones may change from year to year.

These days, Mackenzie is in charge of curating and shaping that legacy. In this year’s edition, a total of 32 short pieces were performed across the four parts of the concert.

Part One opened with Alice Parker’s arrangement of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” which gave the concert a simple but evocative setting. It began with a slow improvisatory section for pitched percussion and celesta before the chorus entered in unison, breaking into celebratory parts at “Rejoice! Rejoice!”

“And the Glory of the Lord” from Handel’s “Messiah” followed, foreshadowing next week’s performances of the Christmas portion of that oratorio and demonstrating clearly the rhythmically driven foundation of the chorus’ technique.

Part Two was the longest, at 38 minutes almost half of the overall concert. The opening number — “Hodie, Christus natus est” from Benjamin Britten’s “A Ceremony of Carols” — featured the Gwinnett Young Singers and the women of the ASO Chorus, accompanied by harpist Ellen Foster.

The Morehouse Glee Club also had its stand-alone parts in the same section. A piece it brought to this program was the attractive “O Holy Child” by Michael Cox. But its high point was a longtime favorite, the Yoruba-drumming “Betelehemu,” which continues to generate tingles in a listener’s skin.

Concertmaster David Coucheron gave a sweetly semplice rendering as soloist in the Largo movement from “Winter” of “The Four Seasons” by Vivaldi. A bold “Boar’s Head Carol” was sung be the male singers from the symphony and Morehouse, a combination that blended the best characteristics of both groups.

Part Four opened with “El Cant del Ocells,” a lovely carol of Catalan origin, in an orchestral arrangement by legendary cellist Pablo Casals, prominently featuring a lyrically pensive cello solo by ASO principal cellist Christopher Rex.

The penultimate piece was the “Dona Nobis Pacem” from Bach’s Mass in B minor, sung by the symphony chorus. Then the entire body of performers and audience joined in on “Adeste Fideles.” More often used at or near the beginning of a Christmas concert, this traditional carol wrapped up the show, placing its invitational message in an entirely different perspective.

If you’ve never been to “Christmas With the ASO,” by all means go. If you’ve been before, go again. The 80-minute concert is quick-paced “serious fun.” Two performances remain, today at 2 and 8 p.m.

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