- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 18, 2005

“Bem-Vindo a Brasil” — Welcome to Brazil — was the spirited sign beckoning patrons to enter a special design boutique at the Choral Arts Society of Washington’s annual Christmas gala at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel on Dec. 11.

Inside were hand-painted gowns and ravishing jewelry pieces fashioned in topaz, tourmaline, citrine, sapphire, lapis lazuli, jasper and amethyst to show off the country’s creative talent — at five-figure prices that were equally lavish. They made the silent auction’s $5,500 minimum bid for a trip for two to the Galapagos Islands seem modest by comparison.

Traditionally, the Choral Arts’ auction is one of the town’s most spectacular, with gift offerings of every kind guaranteed to attract an outpouring of support by hundreds of well-dressed, well-heeled guests. The auction and dinner is preceded by the Society’s Holiday Benefit Concert, which this year broke with tradition by taking place in the hotel’s ballroom instead of the usual site, the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall. (Patrons at the event, titled “An Enchanting Evening in Exotic Brazil,” received tickets for their choice of later KenCen concert dates.)

No matter that it was a smaller group of performers and the concert a third of its customary length. Opinion was divided about the change (which occurred due to scheduling conflicts), but at least no one had to bother parking twice.

“It’s so much easier,” said gala chair Juanita Duggan, putting up a bravura front about a switch she said was made before she took over her duties. “It used to be that people would not sit down to dinner until 10 p.m.,” she volunteered, going on to praise the contributions of the honorary chairmen, Brazilian AmbassadorRoberto Abdenur and his wife, Maria, whose cooperation was essential to ensure the event’s success.

The organizers “succeeded in giving the evening a real Brazilian touch,” Mrs. Abdenur remarked in turn as she admired the decoration committee’s floral efforts, which, while not exactly the warm primary greens, reds and yellows of her native land, were perfectly in keeping with the holiday theme. Also noted was the caipirinha bar where icy glasses of the famed concoction made with lime and cachaca, the potent sugarcane liquor, were on offer.

Both the ambassador and his wife made sure to mention the extraordinary success the Choral Arts Society enjoyed during its visit to Brazil last August. The group’s concerts in Rio’s municipal theater (with the National Symphony of Brazil) and ancient Candelaria Church drew “full houses and long standing ovations,” Mr. Abdenur noted.

“Forty years ago we started off in Constitution Hall with 120 singers and here we are alive and well,” the choir’s ebullient artistic director Norman Scribner told the crowd later … May it go for another 40 years — although I may not be around for that.”

Dinner followed — hearts of palm and citrus fruit salad, “Brazilian barbecued tenderloin” and maracuja (passion fruit) flan — after which it was time to bump-and-grind to the retro sounds of a rock and soul group for such ebullient guests as Chris and Lorraine Wallace, Grace Bender, Caroline Boutte, Buck and Sally Chapoton, Togo and Gail West, Linda Stern, John and Giselle Jeppson, Kandy and Frank Stroud and Will and Barbara Taft. Alas, the band played not a single Brazilian rhythm throughout the night (“Most people don’t know how to dance the samba,” Mrs. Duggan said with some justification.)

Then it was on to closing moments of the silent auction, with some friends asking one another not to bid against them, and the flurry of adding up the healthy proceeds ($538,000) to send the choir out into the country and the world for yet another year.

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