Christmas Music That Doesn't Suck
by, 11-18-2011 at 06:03 PM (313 Views)
She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed has something of a penchant for using just about any holiday as an excuse for doing something ... decorative (not to be confused with decorous). Partly because our kids were reared to respect others' cultural and religious traditions, partly because she just likes to have this kind of fun. So almost anything goes, whether it represents the jewish, christian, islamic, kwanzaa, whatever traditions. Of course, that means that I occasionally find speakers that are festooned with garlands and ribbons and the like. And this means that she likes to fill the house with the "standard" music of the season as well. Doesn't take long for me to reach a state of cringing burnout (especially after a trip to the mall). Then there is the matter of marauding bands of caroleers, always stopping in front of our house, knowing we are supporters of the local music scene and that we count among our friends and relatives those who are musicians of all stripes, music educators, music directors, music producers, etc. (Or do they do that at this time of year for curmudgeonly scrooges?)
To offset this state of affairs somewhat, I reach for something like the Bach Choir of Bethlehem's Christmas in Leipzig, a gift from my late mother a few years ago, quite nice, but one that holds my interest for only so long.
Finally, several seasons ago, I discovered something that is so wonderful that I even play it off-season from time to time, and have been known to replay it for hours on end. Here is what I queue up when I reach the enough-already point:
A New Joy - Orthodox Christmas Music (Harmonia Mundi, 2006 - CD/SACD) is an album of music in the Christian Eastern Orthodox tradition, performed by perhaps one of the finest chamber choirs and orchestras in the world, the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, directed by Paul Hillier. The music features compositions by a number of composers, including one of my very favorites, Arvo Part. Here is how opera critic Robert Levine, writing in the San Francisco Chronicle, puts it:
Beginning with bells tolling in Tallinn, Estonia's St. Alexander's Cathedral, this collection of 19th- and 20th-century Orthodox music from Russia and the Ukraine celebrates the Nativity. Most of the music was suppressed by the authorities, and some of the composers represented - Kastalsky, Barvinskyi, and Izvekov (whose stunning "Christ Is Born," the longest piece on the CD, here receives its first recording) were persecuted, imprisoned, or executed for their religious beliefs. There is also music by Tchaikovsky, Arvo Pärt, and a couple of other, lesser-known composers. Many of the pieces have the distinctly Slavic sound--and chant melodies--opera fans will recognize from the choral sections of "Boris Godunov," while others are more humble. But the harmonies are hypnotic, sometimes dense, and always rich and evocative. The charming Ukrainian carol "Bells Rang Early in Jerusalem" features alternate choirs imitating the tolling of church and sleigh bells. Needless to say, Paul Hillier's leadership of the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir--a world-class group--is superb. A unique disc.
Pink Martini's nondenominational, multi-cultural Joy To The World (Heinz Records, 2010). If you like Pink Martini (who wouldn't?), you will find this a welcome alternative to the usual fare. Let's quote PM's description here:
Joy To The World is a festive, nondenominational holiday album with music from around the globe. “There are 14 songs on Joy to the World,” says Thomas Lauderdale, “including well-known traditional holiday songs like Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas”…sung by China Forbes in English and by the incredible Saori Yuki… the Barbra Streisand of Japan… in Japanese. With the Pacific Youth Choir and the handbell choir Bells of the Cascades, we recorded “Shchedryk,” known in English-speaking countries as “Carol of the Bells,” with the original Ukrainian text which tells of a lark flying into the house at the start of a new year, thus bringing good fortune. We recorded a Hebrew prayer “Elohai N’tzor” with Ida Rae Cahana and Ari Shapiro and Patricia Costa Kim. (Ida Rae Cahana was for many years the canter at Central Synagogue in New York City and now lives in Portland… Ari Shapiro is the NPR White House correspondent… and accordionist Patricia Costa Kim was just named director of education at Experience Music Project in Seattle, but is also known by millions on YouTube as the keyboardist bandleader of Sonseed and their Christian ska song “Jesus is a friend of mine”). There’s a Chinese New Year song from 1946, a Felainspired version of “We Three kings,” a song in Ladino (the intersection of Spanish and Hebrew), “Silent Night” in the original German, as well as a verse in Arabic and another in English. The album ends with a samba parade of “Auld Lang Syne” with choruses in English, Arabic and French over the incredible percussion of the Lions of Batucada.” Lauderdale notes, “I love the holidays and all the music that goes with it. We strove to make an inclusive and non-denominational album that could be played anywhere in the world.”
To be fair, there is lots of decent Christmas music. Heck, I love Ray Charles and will listen to his Spirit of Christmas album now and then.
I have told my kids before that if I were exiled to that mythical Desert Island, forced to leave behind all else, I could probably be happy with just the music of J.S. Bach and the music of Bob Dylan. However -- I cannot recommend Dylan's Christmas In The Heart. I couldn't get past the Amazon lo-fi samples, but maybe I need to give it a proper hearing. Sometime. Judge for yourself.
Now that we are approaching our first holiday season as empty-nesters, things may abate a bit. Any recommendations or comments, relevant or not, would be welcomed. Only 37 shopping days left, you know ...