December is a time of traditions, when the old-fashioned and the familiar settle like a warm blanket over the city. There is a comfort in the fact that the carols remain the same, and that The Nutcracker never goes out of fashion. It's reassuring that you can't turn a corner without hearing Handel's Messiah piped over speakers or escaping from a church.
But when the music becomes too familiar, does its message get muted? Great Performers' Holiday on a High Note series presents some artists next month who set themselves apart from the routine in some surprising ways.
As holiday traditions go, nothing could be more traditional than the annual Christmas Eve Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King's College Chapel in Cambridge, England. The sound of a boy soprano hitting the opening notes of the hymn "Once in Royal David's City"‹heard on recordings and broadcasts around the world‹provides one of the more enthralling musical moments of the season.
And yet it may come as a surprise that the Choir of King's College, Cambridge also introduces plenty of new music for the season as well. Under the directorship of Stephen Cleobury, the 16-boy choir has featured a specially commissioned carol every season for the past 20 years. To date, the list of commissions includes such esteemed composers as Arvo Pärt, Judith Weir, John Tavener, John Rutter, and Peter Sculthorpe.
Cleobury believes it is essential to replenish the repertory and to encourage living composers to write high-quality church music. "There is always a risk of giving people too much of the unfamiliar but I think we strike an appropriate balance," he says. "It is terribly important that choirs like ours are not left out on a limb where contemporary music is concerned. I feel very strongly that we should be trying to encourage composers to write for us who are perhaps better known in other areas. We have a deep responsibility to replenish these traditions."
The King's College Choir, of course, is hardly a renegade contemporary music ensemble intent on dismantling hallowed traditions. King Henry VI, who wanted a resident ensemble for his new college, chartered the choir in 1441. It began its Christmas Eve services in its current form in 1880, and in 1928 it acquired a global audience when it launched an annual radio broadcast over the BBC. The advent of television and recordings only furthered its range, and today the choir reaches more than 100 million people in nearly every corner of the world.
British radio broadcaster Andrew Green has called King's Choir's Christmas Eve service "the quintessential idea of an English Christmas." Not only does the service neatly fit into different liturgical contexts around the world, it is also, according to Green, as English as the World Cup soccer match. "The service is a national institution‹like the Cup Final‹that has become a global brand," he says.
For many American choirs, King's College has set the standard for blended choral singing. "What they represent has had a tremendous influence on other choirs around the world," says Kent Tritle, director of music at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola, where the choir will perform on December 15. "They have given tens of thousands of choruses around the country an entrée into tasteful arrangements of folk music and carols. If you're a choral director, you could listen to their recordings of those arrangements and get a sense of their aesthetic and blend."
When King's performs in New York as part of its six-city U.S. tour, the cavernous acoustics at St. Ignatius Loyola should cast a particularly warm glow around the choir's famously light, celestial sound. Tritle points out that the church's Mander pipe organ, which is the largest of its kind in the New York area, is an added draw. Featured on the program are favorites including Britten's Ceremony of Carols and Vaughan Williams's "Fantasia on Christmas Carols," in addition to arrangements of traditional carols ("O Come, O Come Emmanuel," "God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen") and recently commissioned carols by Robert Chilcott and Phillip Ledger.
Cleobury says public response to the mix of old and new pieces is largely appreciative, but after every Christmas Eve service he receives a handful of e-mails complaining about unholy discord. "Any time there is the injection of new musical blood, some will complain that such cacophonous nonsense has no place in Church," Cleobury notes. "People feel very strongly about their traditions."
If the practice of choral singing suggests the public nature of the holiday rituals, its personal counterpart calls for soloists. A few years ago, Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter set out to create an album that offered a distinct alternative to the swelling choirs, overblown string arrangements, and lame attempts at English singing found on many opera singers' Christmas recordings. The result was Home for the Holidays, a program of Scandinavian folk music and select carols, backed by a rustic folk ensemble of accordion, guitar, strings, and organ.
Like a fine wine, the material has had just enough time to acquire its true flavor, and on December 18, von Otter will bring it to Alice Tully Hall. Just as King's College Choir conjures up the classic English Christmas, von Otter favors a folkish intimacy evocative of Christmas in Sweden. Scandinavian tunes like "Koppangen" will share the bill with familiar treats like "I Wonder as I Wander" and "The Christmas Song."
Great Performers' Holidays on a High Note series also includes Rob Kapilow's classic music theater piece, Green Eggs and Hamadeus on December 11 (see page 20). With its gleefully absurd pastiche of sounds and verse, the work offers the young at heart a perfect remedy to the stresses of the holiday season.
Brian Wise is a producer at WNYC radio and writes about music for a variety of publications.