After two years of the the Christmas Oratorio (divided into two), we’re excited to present a different kind of Christmas Concert this year. We’re offering a live performance of our much-lauded “Child’s Christmas in Bethlehem” recording on Analekta, complete with the Bel Canto Children’s Chorus of the Bach Choir of Bethlehem. We’ll be offering carols in several languages, interspersed with readings of poetry and stories, forming a kind of invocation of the Christmas spirit that is certain to delight, entertain, and move. While children play a central role in the proceedings, this concert is aimed towards children of all ages, and anyone who would like to recapture the wonder of the season from our increasingly commercial/consumerist observations. Maybe it’s that I was almost consumed by a swarm of holiday revelers on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan this past Sunday, but I’m quite ready for the magic that comes when unamplified voices are raised with a collective ambition to bring beauty, peace, and joy to our audience.
The first half of the program will include music by both the Bach Choir and Bel Canto, including Ralph Vaughan Williams’ spectacularly charming Fantasia on Christmas Carols. This work, composed for the Three Choirs Festival at Hereford Cathedral in 1912, combines English folk hymns to fantastic effect – on a recent radio interview promoting the concert, I mentioned that it is perhaps the purest distillation of the peculiarly English Christmas charm, an intimate evocation of a candlelit Cathedral, or perhaps some figgy pudding. It is an entirely earnest affair, beginning with solo voice (in our concerts, the marvelous David Newman) with monophonic organ accompaniment. Soon, the choir joins, humming and on neutral syllables, quite like an imagined desert wind. Occasionally, in that swirling, a section of the choir will come to the fore on the syllable “ah.” Vaughan Williams distinctly pastoral sounds are much in evidence. Eventually, the choir sings verses of the carols and folk hymns, often trading melodies with the soloist, there are moments of heroic tenoring, beautiful call and response, canons, organ merriment, and then the work ends slowly and quietly, with wishes for a happy New Year. I’m pretty cynical about Christmas nostalgia, but this one brings a tear to my eye, every time (including in rehearsal, when I have to try to discreetly collect myself after several of the big moments). I make no equivocations or apologies – a good performance of the Fantasia, alone, is worth the price of admission! (Ours will be lovely – I can’t wait to hear David sing this, as well as Tom Goeman’s lovely arrangement of O Holy Night, in what’s certain to be the most tasteful rendition imaginable!)
The second half of the program gives over to the live performance of the recording. We are singing the Nigerian carol, Betelehemu, quite jauntily – the admonition from our fearless leader was to make it less polished and more visceral. Consider it done! We’ve received excellent French coaching from alto Jennifer Hay, whom I’ve known for years, and did not know had such a beautiful sense for French language. We’ll put it to good use on John Rutter’s Noel Nouvelet arrangement, complete with mutation stops aplenty in the organ accompaniment (too bad we can’t pour some Sauternes to accompany it!). Bel Canto will be singing Gwyneth Walker’s lovely setting of the Langston Hughes’ poem, A Shepherd’s Song at Christmas, with a harp-like twinkling piano accompaniment and a soloist’s hauntingly beautiful voice. The men and the women of the choir each have their own selections, a Spanish carol for men with guitar and piano accompaniment and duetting violin obligatos. The ladies are singing Bob Chilcott’s The Angel Gabriel, also extremely lovely. We’re delighted to sing David Umla’s beautiful composition (for which he also wrote the text) Sleep Well Thou Child of God. I have to be careful in my singing of this selection, as I sit next to David in most rehearsals! His carol is a tender and affecting lullaby, and it sounds at once jazzy and properly English. We begin in procession with John Erikson’s arrangement of Of the Father’s Love Begotten, complete with random-ringing handbells, which create an aural atmosphere of great peace and wonder. And, we conclude with Mack Wilberg’s crazy-fun arrangement of Ding Dong Merrily on High, with a zesty organ accompaniment and much dinging from the lower three voices.
My friends, if, at the conclusion of this concert, you’re not ready to break out the stollen and have a Christmas waltz with your loved ones, there’s little else I imagine we can do for you. I am inordinately fond of serious Christmas music, the Oratorio, Messiah, cantatas, etc. I yield to no one in my affection for the big Christmas guns, but I have to tell you, I am so delighted that we’re offering this program. It probably is ever so, but much of our current moment feels heavy, dark, and cheerless. As an antidote (as opposed to escapism), these concerts promise eternal truths, offered lovingly, with great tenderness and authenticity, and tremendous heart. We can’t wait to share this timeless and beautiful music with you – you won’t want to miss it!