- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 19, 2004

Norman Scribner is renowned for his understanding of the musical heritage of countries featured by the Choral Arts Society of Washington at its annual holiday concerts. Over the years, the conductor has devised a perfect mix of orchestral works, carols and folkloric songs to reflect the traditional sounds of Christmas in Britain, Sweden, Russia, Greece, Belgium and other lands.

Program planning got complicated, however, when Singapore offered to sponsor this year’s event. Organizers wondered whether there was much in the way of Christmas music in the predominantly Chinese and Malay city-state where Buddhists comprise 70 percent of the population. (Muslims and Christians claim about 15 percent each.)

Not to worry. It soon was discovered that Chinese Christians in the former British colony had translated and transliterated many of the traditional English carols long ago; then, longtime Choral Arts member Howard Spendelow, a Georgetown University history professor, solved the language problem by offering to coach the choir in Mandarin.

The fun part came Dec. 13 at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall when Mr. Scribner exhorted the audience “to venture where we’ve never ventured before” and join in the obligatory “singalong” after a quickie lesson from Mr. Spendelow to get them through the first stanza of “Silent Night.”

“Ping an ye, sheng shan ye. Mu yang ren, zai kuang ye …,” the 1,200-strong crowd sang, definitely pleased, but also grateful that the rest of the evening was devoted to works sung in Latin, English, German and Italian — with a de rigueur multicultural interlude featuring a black spiritual and a song in Hebrew.

So much singing makes for a thirsty crowd, and luckily, there was plenty to imbibe during the long cocktail-hour-cum-silent-auction that preceded dinner and dancing at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel for a minimum $425-a-pop.

The auction is truly deserving of its reputation as one of the most lavish and successful of its kind in the capital, for it contained an enormous array of exotic getaways, furs, diamonds and other high-priced luxury goods. A Gartenhaus man’s beaver coat, deemed “more Russian kleptocrat style than mine” by one viewer, went out into the cold winter night on another gentleman for $4,000, while the top item, a 2005 Chrysler Crossfire convertible, drew a single winning $38,000 bid from Monarch Title CEO Jerry Boutcher. Microstrategy boss Michael Saylor, who sprung for a full-length mink coat for one of his comely female guests at last year’s event, was soberly focused this year on winning a dinner with 18 pals at the residence of Singaporean Ambassador Heng Chee Chan . (He did, for $4,750).

Ms. Chan viewed the proceedings with some satisfaction, pleased to report there is “lots of buying” in her country at this time of year as well.

“We do Christmas big time in Singapore. The streets are lighted just like in New York and people fly in just to shop and take in the atmosphere,” she said, just before a troupe of actors garbed in a Chinese dragon costume led guests into dinner to the sound of beating drums and crashing cymbals.

Singapore’s contribution to the event was big time, too, Ms. Chan noted as she proudly pointed to the 3,600 orchid stalks decorating the dining room and auction area. All were flown in for free by Singapore Airlines, which also donated two first class round-trip tickets to Singapore from Newark plus four days accommodations at the Oriental Hotel.

Guests including Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sens. Gordon Smith andBill Nelson, ChrisandLorraine Wallace, Alanand Dianne Kay, RaulandJean Fernandez, WallaceandWilhelmina Holladay, David Petrou, BuddyandGinger Pickle, Marta Istomin, Linda Stern, Jane SloatandNini Ferguson dined on Pan-Asian seared shrimp, seven-pepper encrusted rack of lamb and an exotic chocolate parfait, then hit the dance floor with a holiday abandon that lasted until hard core revelers finally called it quits just before 2 a.m.

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