If audience members arrived at the Winnipeg Singers' concert Sunday afternoon in a non-festive mood, they certainly left with the glow of the holidays on their faces.
A Canadian Christmas was a wonderfully programmed 90-minute concert containing every component required for a satisfying yuletide experience.
Crescent Fort Rouge United Church was a vision, with lighted evergreen boughs festooned on the stage, a sparkling Christmas tree, huge wreath and glittering stars hanging from the balcony.
Seated at a microphone stage left was Winnipeg musician and teacher Dietrich Bartel who, between songs and carols, read Neepawa-born Margaret Laurence's children's book A Christmas Birthday Story, a charming interpretation of the story of the birth of Jesus.
After Bartel's brief introduction, the Winnipeg Singers emerged procession-style down the aisles of the church, singing a serenely lovely O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. The men were in their usual natty tuxedos, while the ladies wore a mix of black or jewel-toned dresses.
Hodie, Christus natus est was arresting in its clarity and precision -- truly sounding like the angels of which the choir was singing. Conductor Yuri Klaz's hands were like instruments of magic, conveying to his singers every nuance, every breath.
Thou Shalt Know Him was the first of four intriguing works by Kingston native Mark Sirett, certainly someone whose music deserves seeking out.
Klaz rendered this gentle and peaceful, each note finely honed, and the mesmerizing soft ending just faded away enchantingly.
In a bit of smart programming, the St. James-Assiniboia Junior Concert Choir assembled onstage while the audience was busied singing O Little Town of Bethlehem.
They joined the Winnipeg Singers in local composer Andrew Balfour's The Wyandot's Realm, which incorporates The Huron Carol into its score.
On their own, the junior choir, directed by Sharon Marshall, offered up a rousing version of The Sleigh, complete with bells.
Cary Denby accompanied on piano. High-spirited, with each section well-balanced, the only thing missing were smiles on the young faces.
Later in the program, the group returned for a particularly bright reading of Sirett's rhythmically challenging Sunny Bank, which they obviously enjoyed performing. (Yes, there were a few grins).
Other highlights included Derek Holman's arrangement of Il est né le divin enfant, which gave pianist Verna Wiebe a chance to shine in a rather avant-garde introduction and accompaniment.
Section solos were rock solid and there was a nice bounce to this old favourite.
What Sweeter Music (also by Sirett) was supremely touching, Klaz's direction bringing out shifting colours through well-shaped phrasing. Simply lovely.
The anthem-like The Season by Manitoba's own Fred Penner provided a grand finale with both choirs onstage. Bassist Michael McKay and guitarist Ric Schulz got off to a shaky start, but once the choirs joined in, all was well.
It was heartwarming to end with the optimism of children's voices.
This was a joyous afternoon of seasonal music that deserved the standing ovation it received.