Kay McFarland told herself that no matter what, she was going to see the annual Christmas Concert at Mission San Xavier del Bac.

She had let the first 13 concerts - with Sons of Orpheus - the Male Choir of Tucson, along with the Tucson Arizona Boys Chorus - pass her by because she didn't want to go out at night.

"This year, I decided to come regardless of whether I had to use a cane or a walker," said the 92-year-old North Dakota native who started wintering in Tucson in 1989.

As she spoke Tuesday evening, the lights in the 213-year-old mission dimmed, and five young girls wearing native Tohono O'odham dresses and carrying candles led the procession down the aisles to the altar. Tuxedo-clad singers with the Sons of Orpheus followed. Then came the Boys Chorus, dressed in brilliant red robes, singing the medieval Christmas carol "Personent Hodie."

This is the 14th season of the mission Christmas concerts, the hottest ticket of the holiday season. All of the early concerts were sold out long before Tuesday, although there are some tickets left for the later performances tonight and Thursday.

Alice Kizzier, McFarland's 81-year-old friend and neighbor at Splendido at Rancho Vistoso, had a pretty good idea why the concerts are so popular. Of all the holiday events in Tucson, this one probably goes the furthest back in time, mining medieval carols alongside works from the past three centuries.

The program included solo turns by both ensembles, the Boys Chorus led by director Julian Ackerley and the Sons of Orpheus conducted by Grayson Hirst. In between, the two choirs married their voices with delicious harmony, the boys filling in the high-pitched tenor voices to the men's muscular lower ranges.

Throughout the 75-minute concert, the singers performed with vibrant color and warm tones, particularly on "The First Noel," set to Pachelbel's Canon by Sons of Orpheus member Michael Clawsen. Violinist Nicole Skaggs added a rich warmth to the piece with wonderfully nuanced playing.

The vocalists performed with accompaniment from an organist and a few brass players, and Skaggs, who performed on several works.

Soprano Vicki Love, a University of Arizona voice major, soloed on a chilling and inspired "Ave Maria"; when she hit the top of her range, you could hear a pin drop in the drafty hall, dressed up with flickering candles high atop the molding. It took all you could muster not to stand up and shout bravo.

Love returned to the stage a few minutes later for a lovely duet with Hirst on "O Holy Night."

The Sons of Orpheus induced goose bumps with their crystalline reading of a Nigerian Christmas song titled "Betelehemu," sung in the native tongue. Guest percussionist Tamara Williams joined Sons of Orpheus member Ivan Berger on the deeply resonating djembes.

Not to be undone, the boys brought on their own goose bumps with a marvelous reading of "Joseph, Dearest Joseph Mine."


San Xavier Mission Christmas Concert Tuesday, featuring the Tucson Arizona Boys Chorus and Sons of Orpheus - the Male Choir of Tucson. Concerts repeat at 6 and 8 p.m. today and Thursday; 6 p.m. shows are sold out. Reserve tickets ($90; $70 is tax-deductible) by calling 577-3808.

Contact reporter Cathalena E. Burch at cburch@azstarnet.com or 573-4642.