- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 18, 2002

The Choral Arts Society of Washington is renowned for mastering the sound of foreign tongues especially for the annual Christmas benefit concert, which features the sacred music and carols of a different land.

French, German, Italian and Spanish aren't a problem for the 170-member choir led by longtime maestro Norman Scribner. Minor languages, of course, pose greater difficulties. Just think what it takes to learn the choral complexities of Romansch, Romanian or Czech.

This year's Russian theme posed its own special challenges, which, by all accounts, were met successfully at Sunday's sold-out 5 p.m. concert in the Kennedy Center's Concert Hall. The Russian and Ukrainian selections, including "Valenki" ("Woolen Boots") and the famous folk song "Kalinka" ("The Snowball Tree") drew great applause from an audience that included both Russian nationals and American Russophiles.

"Russian is consonant-heavy and doesn't have that many high vowels," the beaming Mr. Scribner noted later while accepting congratulations at a glittery dinner-dance at the Embassy of the Russian Federation. "You have to amplify the crescendos and diminuendos and make them surge like a ship on the high seas."

Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Thomas Pickering, listening intently from his front-row box seat, was pleased to note that "the bass was strong enough to deal with the other voices."

Russian Ambassador Yuri V. Ushakov, the evening's honorary host, did not fail his mission to deliver the ultimate accolade diplomatically: "They sing very well," he said with a smile, "but it's more important to feel Russian and they did."

The Russian songs (accompanied by the 45-member Washington Balalaika Society) were definite hits, but so was Franz Schubert's "Ave Maria," delivered by raven-haired guest soprano Alessandra Marc in crystal-clear tones.

Of course, the audience never minds being bossed around by Mr. Scribner when the time comes to sing along to "Silent Night" ("Softly, softly") and "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" ("Pretty loud to overcome the massive sound of the brass").

Guests paying $425 (minimum) apiece to attend the post-concert gala were ready to celebrate especially after surviving the valet parking and security check lines at the embassy gates. Once guests were inside, an army of waiters bearing trays filled with welcoming shots of vodka and hors d'oeuvres helped perk up any "Bah, humbug" types in the crowd, even ABC newsman Chris Wallace, who admitted to being "a bit grumpy at having to get into black tie at three o'clock in the afternoon."

The embassy's massive ballroom and adjoining anterooms seemed especially inviting on such a cold winter's night. The huge mosaics and marble walls shimmered in the warm light of candles and crystal chandeliers dimmed to please les dames d'un certain age. Ornate shot glasses and bottles of Stolichnaya were placed strategically on tables with cloths of different colored silk and flowers and fruits to match as guests dined on imperial lobster salad, medallions of veal Peterhoff and a bittersweet chocolate dessert shaped to look like a pearl-encrusted Faberge egg. Even the Russian diplomats were impressed. Several were heard to say they had never seen their embassy look so beautiful.

Many of the 700 benefactors were still rocking to the sounds of Fancy Dance as midnight arrived, and carousing continued along with the flow of vodka for at least another hour.

Among those sighted, all in jolly good form, of course: gala chairwoman Christie Weiss (ultimately responsible for the event's estimated $430,000 net profit), Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Danish Ambassador Ulrik Felderspiel, Ken and Keval Bajaj, Arturo and Hilda Brillembourg, Kay Kendall and Septime Webre, Donald Sigmund (making a rare social appearance since his family's car-bombing tragedy), former Secretary of Defense James R. Schlesinger, former FBI and CIA Director William H. Webster and Lynda Webster, NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, Debbie Sigmund (with David Connelly), Catherine and Wayne Reynolds (who ducked out of the concert at intermission to watch their "60 Minutes" interview with Mike Wallace), John and Sally Chapoton, Henry Cashen, Howard and Barbara Burris, William H. Timbers (chief executive of USEC Inc., the gala's major sponsor), Nini Ferguson, David and Connie Lawson, Andy (Mrs. Potter) Stewart, Mark Ein, John Firestone, Patricia Bennett Sagon and Bob and Olga Ryan.

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