Christmas Chorales In New York City

The Holiday Season in NYC is a glorious experience.  We all are familiar with the festive, now iconic decorations representing Christmas, Chanukah, and Kwanzaa that adorn–indeed dominate–Gotham this time of year.  As a native New Yorker, I especially, along with 6 million other local residents, look forward to the lighting of the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree, the rise of the gigantic Fifth Avenue Snowflake, and the Lincoln Center Christmas Tree Holiday Festival and Lighting…always sparkling events surrounded by festive, seasonal music. We know the lyrics so well that we can’t help but sing along.

The sounds of this joyous season can easily be followed by NYC’s own New York Choral Consortium, and should only be experienced live, not captured on our ever present digital cameras, camcorders and cell phones.  No recording can replace the first hand, audience to performer, sensory live performance (but that is another topic for another time).

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The Holiday Season is the zenith for some terrific performances, especially when it comes to choral music celebrating the eve and day of Christmas.  I adored singing the 2nd Alto and Bass lines in my college chorus (perhaps I was a teensy bit envious of those showy sopranos and tenors, but I knew that I was a part of an important whole) and the “Christmas Concert” was always a unique high to this non-vocal music major.  Not only did we perform traditional songs and carols in 3 and 4-part harmony (I tingle as I recall the physical rush I felt from the glory of singing in 4-part harmony), but we lovingly handled the choral parts of  “Handel’s Messiah” and embraced the harmonic textures of  Benjamin Britten’s “Ceremony of Carols”, my particular favorite.  The breathtaking beauty of this remarkable piece continues to haunt me.  These “carols” are jewels in a necklace worthy of a Hapsburg…each song a unique, precious gem.

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Benjamin Britten, the English composer, wrote this “ceremony” –and he uses this term loosely–in 1942 for a boys’ choir.  These songs are not the traditional “carols” we have come to expect this time of year.  This piece is some 20+ minutes in length, consisting of 11 small songs–some are medieval poems set to music, some are performed a capella, some are sung in 3 or 4-part harmony and/or chanted in Latin and one is performed as a deceivingly simple children’s round.  The instrumentation consists of the harp, if you stay true to Britten’s score, although I have heard it performed with a piano accompaniment.  (Hard to find a harpist, perhaps?)  This “ceremony” opens and closes with the same plainsong vocal line, which announces “Hodie Christus Natus Est”.

There is an achingly gorgeous harp solo poignantly positioned among these marvelous “carols”, which will send your senses soaring.   A women’s chorus always proves worthy of this glorious music, and nowadays, you will hear it performed by both male and female voices.  The sheer simplicity of the human voice, couched in a complex harmony, creates a brilliant, rich sound that will reverberate with you long past the holiday season.

I urge you to celebrate the seasonal sounds and glory of choral singing in NYC.  Our churches offer many free concerts, and even those that charge make it affordable for all.  Go to the New York Choral Consortium’s website for a list of the many choral concerts happening in December 2011.  Many are doing song selections, if not the entire Benjamin Britten “Ceremony of Carols”.  You will thank me for introducing you to this amazing, unique musical piece.  Happy Holidays!

By: Joanne Theodorou



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