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Arlington Chorale to sing ‘rarely performed’ Christmas song at annual holiday concert next weekend

Arlington Chorale December 2022 concert at Westover Baptist Church (courtesy of Dennis Pitman)

The Arlington Chorale is gearing up to bring a long-lost musical piece to life at its holiday concert next Saturday in Westover.

The community choir plans to perform familiar classics, including “Good King Wenceslas” and “Gloria.” However, it is also adding what it says is a rarely performed composition to its repertoire: ‘The Ballad of the Brown King.”

Composed by African-American composer Margaret Bonds, the ballad was first performed in New York in December 1954. It tells the story of Balthazar, one of the Three Wise Men in the Nativity story, who is described in some biblical translations as “dark or Black,” says Ingrid Lestrud, the choir conductor.

“As this work premiered in 1954 before the Civil Rights movement, it was a pretty radical idea to have a Black man as the main figure of a 25-minute piece for choir and orchestra,” Lestrud told ARLnow.

Although one Early Middle Ages saint describes Balthazar as having “black complexion,” it was not until the end of the 15th century that artists regularly depicted Balthazar with darker skin.

During the concert, slated for 5 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 9, at the Westover Baptist Church, Scott Edwin Taylor, director of The Black Heritage Museum of Arlington, and Saundra Green, a local Arlington resident, will also discuss the history of the song and share their insight about the hurdles Bonds faced as a Black female composer before the Civil Rights era.

“It was not performed often during the composer’s lifetime — probably because it was difficult for Black women to convince conductors to program their music — but her pieces are starting to be performed more now that conductors are trying to program a more diverse range of composers,” Lestrud said.

A conductor and educator, Lestrud has served on the staff of several ensembles in the D.C. area, including the National Children’s Chorus, Capital City Symphony and Encore Creativity for Older Adults. She has led the Arlington Chorale since 2019, per the press release.

The 60-member local, nonprofit chorus was first established in 1966 and both women and men sing in the ensemble. Over the years, it has performed at a number of significant regional events, including the Major League Baseball All-Star Game in 2018 at Nationals Park.

After a several-year hiatus due to Covid, the choir made a comeback to the local music scene last year.

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