The annual holiday visit by Chanticleer has become a highlight of the season at George Mason University. This year the virtuoso ensemble performs at both the Center for the Arts and the Hylton Performing Arts Center in a program encompassing a variety of styles from Gregorian chants to modern pieces and familiar carols..

"Our program is a variation on a popular theme," said Jace Wittig, interim music director. "We begin with Gregorian chants interwoven by three small groups. They are a plea for Christ to come into the world. We follow them with 'Nesciens Mater,' by Jean Mouton, a French composer of the Renaissance. Other Renaissance works from Italy, Germany and Spain tell the Christmas story from the angel to the shepherds and the shepherds to the people.

"The last piece in the first half of the concert is Jan Sanstrom's setting of the song we know as 'Lo! How a Rose E'er Blooming.' It begins with a unison voice cluster and is sung in Swedish, his language. As they listen, the audience members will take it to their heart. A modern work, Herbert Howells' 'A Spotless Rose,' is lush and beautiful. The solo part will be sung by baritone Mike Axtell.

"Among the several new pieces we're singing is 'Radiant Light' by Russian composer Alexander Gretchaninoff translated from the Russian orthodox church. I expect audiences to like it very much because it's so impactful and decadent in its use of loud, high, low and rich tones. Of course we will sing Delibes' 'Ave Maria,' one that everyone loves, carols from around the world and our signature blend of gospel at the end."

'A Chanticleer Christmas'
Where: George Mason University Center for the Performing Arts, 4400 University Drive, Fairfax
When: 8 p.m. Saturday; pre-performance discussion by company member
Info: $24 to $48; 888-945-2468;
Where: Hylton Performing Arts Center, 10960 George Mason Circle, Manassas
When: 4 p.m. Sunday; pre-performance discussion by company member
Info: $32 to $48; 888-945-2468;

Chanticleer began rehearsing in October for the tour that will take them to New York, New Jersey, Boston, Chicago, Santa Fe, and back to California in time for concerts in L.A. and their traditional two weeks at home in the Bay Area. The Christmas concerts are the climax of a year that took them to Europe three times in some of the great concert halls. Wittig was especially impressed by the new Bela Bartok hall in Budapest where there is a strong music tradition.

Since its founding in 1978, Chanticleer has been regarded as the finest male chorus in the world. The 12 coveted paid positions change rarely. This year, the ensemble welcomes one new member. Over the years, the quality of the voices has not changed. The only difference is that the members are more versatile than in the past and able to sing more demanding works exemplified by the Russian piece on the program.

"The best thing about being the music director is getting to hear them sing every day," Wittig said. "I sing during rehearsal, but much of my job is planning each program and researching the texts. Our Christmas program is always welcomed wherever we go because it brings peace and calm during a hectic time of the year. This is when we reach the greatest number of listeners and we hope that we will touch those who have been going through troubled times."