“…in Luna Pearl Woolf’s How Bright the Darkness, an impressively vivid piece for women’s choir, baritone solo, strings, percussion, and harp. Woolf’s orchestration and harmonies paint the sparseness of nature. It is a piece where the listener can actually hear the sounds of nature on the darkest day, the solstice.”
’Tis the season. Yes, the weather has cooled, the days are short, and the signs of Christmas can be heard and seen all around. And while it can be comforting to reacquaint yourself with your favorite Messiah or Bach Cantata, finding some new music to celebrate the season can be even more rewarding. This music here in “December Celebration” is especially new. All new music from some of the most important American composers such as Jake Heggie and William Bolcom. This compilation of new carols is more than intriguing, it’s downright captivating.
It’s interesting how there is an unmistakable Christmas “sound” in music where the Currier and Ives pours from the music. And one of the most reassuring aspects of this disc is how that sound pervades these pieces in different ways. There are simple and effective ways of accomplishing this, of course, by utilizing existing texts and melodies in new arrangements as Heggie and Getty have done, but also in original pieces such as the opening The Christmas Life by Mark Adamo where the wistful side of the Christmas season is in the forefront. Wendy Cope’s poem is brought to life in fleetingly warm flashes that dissipate to more unsettled colors by Adamo. It is not all that unlike the melancholy “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” from Meet Me in St. Louis. It is a reminder of the frigidity of the season. Likewise in Luna Pearl Woolf’s How Bright the Darkness, an impressively vivid piece for women’s choir, baritone solo, strings, percussion, and harp. Woolf’s orchestration and harmonies paint the sparseness of nature. It is a piece where the listener can actually hear the sounds of nature on the darkest day, the solstice.
Joan Morris’ and William Bolcom’s Carol is a cheery, strophic piece for chorus and piano where, with text by Kenneth Grahame, the altruistic goodwill of the season is uncontainable. The ever-youthful Gordon Getty accomplishes much the same with his Four Christmas Carols, a vivacious collection for women’s chorus and orchestra, that captures the youthful wonder of Christmas.
Jake Heggie, perhaps the most recognizable of composers represented here, contributes On the Road to Christmas, a six song cycle for soprano and strings. Those familiar with Heggie’s music will find his theatricality ever present here which has some mixed success in this piece. The opening, “The Night is Freezing Fast” is unsettled and pulsating. “The Car Ride to Christmas,” with poem by Frederica von Stade, is a bumpy journey that recalls and bounces through a stream of consciousness childhood memory. Heggie and the listener are on more comfortable ground in the remaining songs including a charming setting of Emily Dickinson’s “The Road to Bethlehem.” A Heggie text, “Christmas Time of Year,” is a song that could pass for one of the great American standards, and a sincere conclusion. Soprano Lisa Delan, a singer of innate dramatic ability and an immediately winning sound serves these songs with dedication and musical ease.
Delan is joined by Lester Lynch, a powerful baritone, for David Garner’s Three Carols. Garner, a composer I wasn’t familiar with, makes a strong case for himself with one of the most distinguished contributions on this disc.Three Carols, a piece for the two soloists, oboe, frame drum, and strings, is an exceptionally original piece that converges several styles throughout. Most beneficially, the piece enjoys the profoundly clever lyrics of Thomas Breidenthal, who tells of the nativity from the first person of the participants, from the obvious Mary and Joseph, to the less obvious donkey, cow, rooster, etc. The first song, “Posada,” tells of the holy family’s arrival in a simple verse-chorus style. The second, “Magnum Mysterium” is a refreshingly non-saccharine, rhythmic telling of the birth with several verses, each attributed to a different animal in the manger, and the refrain returning to the catchy “O magnum mysterium” motive. The final song, “Jesus’ Song,” is from the savior’s first person point of view, awestruck at all the wondrous things going on around him. It is a clever, thoughtful, and ultimately, touching Christmas perspective.
That thoughtful perspective is brought to life throughout this disc. Conductor Dawn Harms leads the Volti Chorus and Musicians of the New Century Chamber Orchestra with assuredness, but also with a strong sense of purpose through each of the unique pieces. “December Celebration,” rounded out by John Corigliano’s rollicking Christmas at the Cloisters and Gordon Getty’s serene arrangement of Silent Night, is a triumph of purpose, giving new meaning to the sounds of the season.
By Matthew Richard Martinez