As seasonal decorations pop up all around New York City, holiday music now fills our ears wherever we go. Whether in a deli, a restaurant, or a department store, the annual holiday song mix rings out—a small taste of the vast selection of sung holiday music let loose in December. Notices of holiday concerts buzz into my smart phone all day long as choirs everywhere bring more than ten centuries of wondrous music to audiences who don’t seem to get tired of hearing it. But what about the choirs that don’t have a strong interest in performing holiday music? Where does contemporary choral music fit into the holiday music web? How do audiences choose what to go out and hear during this busy season?
For choirs that don’t have a burning interest in holiday-themed concerts—my own choir, Melodia Women’s Choir, included—an easy solution is to present a fall concert before Thanksgiving. Although this can mean a scramble to prepare and promote the concert in only a few weeks, it leaves the door wide open for broad repertoire choices regardless of the season. C4: The Composer/Conductor Collective based in New York that performs music written in the last 25 years with particular emphasis on works by composer-members also chooses dates before Thanksgiving for its fall concerts. C4 member and composer Martha Sullivan told me that she believes the challenge for a composer interested in writing seasonally appropriate choral music is to find texts that may lend themselves to a meaningful setting but still resonate with a broad audience. An example of one that Sullivan has used is the “O” Antiphons for Advent, adding that the “O” Antiphons are set to a text that is explicitly for sacred use, but many composers have used them in such a way that they are good for concert use as well.
San Francisco-based contemporary music vocal ensemble Volti presents a holiday concert of contemporary and premiere works that nods to the season but remains solidly rooted in the choir’s regular programming direction. Described by Volti as “a non-traditional program rich in poetry” and “an exploration of aspects of the divine in the most mundane moments,” this year’s concert features premieres by Mark Winges, Stacy Garrop, Ian Freebairn-Smith, and a 2009 work by Shawn Crouch.
As a choral music concert-goer as well as singer and organizer, I try to balance a couple of traditional holiday concerts by outstanding choirs with some performances that are especially exciting to me. Since treble repertoire is my favorite voicing, likely special treats will be Anonymous 4‘s performance of their “Anthology 25” program of ancient, traditional, and contemporary works at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a performance of Messiaen’s Trois petites liturgies de la Présence Divine performed by the Orchestra of St. Luke’s with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chamber Chorus. Other than that, I’ll dust off my holiday music choral CD collection featuring everything from plainchant to pop and listen to WQXR Holiday Music at www.wqxr.org. When I want some non-choral fun, I’ll watch my favorite holiday music YouTube clip of the Bowen Beer Bottle Band’s rendition of Angels We Have Heard on High. Enjoy!
What less-heralded music do you like to hear in this season?