Holiday Dreams and Delights from on High
By Victoria Looseleaf
In our crazy-quilt city of eternal sunlight, the winter holidays have a decidedly different cast. Not in evidence are sparkling snowflakes, sidewalk Santas or the bite of a frosty evening – a trip to the Grove notwithstanding. What we do have, however, is something Angelenos have come to cherish: the Los Angeles Master Chorale performing its annual holiday concert in Walt Disney Concert Hall. Tonight the spirit of the season bursts with the quintessential companion works, Benjamin Britten’s masterful A Ceremony of Carols and Conrad Susa’s heart-warming Carols and Lullabies: Christmas in the Southwest.”
The term “carol” originally denoted a medieval English song with a refrain (think “fa la la la la…”), but in current usage has come to signify any Christmas song. Even in today’s oversaturated consumer world, where all artists release holiday albums, including rappers, there is still solace to be found in carols. For Britten, a prolific British composer born in 1913 who worked in many genres – from operas, symphonies and chamber pieces to choral works and even music for documentaries - the creation of “Ceremony” transpired during a five-week, trans-Atlantic crossing from America to England on a cargo ship in 1942. Conceived during the most brutal conflict of the century - and a full 20 years before his “War Requiem,” a public statement of anti-war convictions and denunciation of the wickedness of war (not of other men) that would go on to win several Grammy Awards - “Ceremony” set out to accomplish the goal of evoking the struggle between good and evil in another manner: Turning to chamber choir and harp, Britten was able to express his feelings in a celebratory, dance-like work based on medieval and 16th century poetry, his intertwining of unusual harmonies and otherworldly melodies transporting listeners from a frozen landscape to an enchanted realm. As the composer – the son of a dentist and amateur musician - intended the half-hour work to be performed in churches and cathedrals, it is only fitting it rings out tonight in Disney Hall, a virtual temple of music whose dazzling acoustics bathe the listener in beauty and grace. Having stumbled upon an “English Galaxy” anthology of poems in a bookshop in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Britten chose about a dozen of the texts, making use of his time at sea to compose a work in the manner of plainsong originally designed for women’s voices. The first performance was given in Norwich, England on Christmas day 1942, and was later recast for full chorus, giving an already luminous masterpiece one with even more colors and sonic riches. The ten-movement opus – its words evoking somewhat of an alien world and a far cry from, say, an “Adeste Fideles” kind of Christmas - is as much about medieval European Christianity than the biblical Christmas story familiar to most. Bookended with an a cappella processional/recessional based on the above-mentioned plainchant melody, it opens in Latin, the text describing the angels’ and archangels’ elation in the birth of Christ. Followed by the anonymous, “Wolcum Yole,” this somewhat secular carol depicts revelers as they welcome the holiday season. “There is no Rose” is a gorgeous setting in English and Latin, luxuriously swinging between duple and triple meters, while a decidedly medieval tone permeates “That Yonge Child.” Eloquently set for sopranos and harp, it is followed by the lusciously harmonized lullaby, “Balulalow,” after which comes the waltz-like hymn of praise to Mary, “As Dew in Aprille.” The transition to “This Little Babe,” an animated, stretto-filled rendering of Christ as heroic warrior and guardian against sin serves as a contrast to “Interlude,” a breathtakingly ethereal harp solo. This brief section - a clever variation recalling the first theme of the Processional, seems to make time stand still, generating a meditative milieu that duly displays the harp’s plucked harmonics and frothy arpeggios. Having set the mood for the next carol, “In Freezing Winter Night,” undeniably the piece’s atmospheric core, this movement commences with a cool rendering of an even frostier evening in Bethlehem, with crisp ostinato accompaniment. The choir also embodies this chill before warming midway, the emotive text referring to the Child brought from heaven. Returning to terra firma with “Spring Carol” and “Deo Gracias” (Thanks be to God), these movements contain myriad rhythmic syncopations, the former in a rocking 6/8 and the latter nothing short of a jazz riff celebrating the fall of Adam and Eve in order to mark Christ’s birth and nothing less than the redemption of mankind. But the glory is not quite finished: Britten, returning to the music heard at the work’s start, much like he had done in “Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings,” makes use of the Latin chant “Hodie Christus natus est,” and as the choir retreats, their repeated “Alleluia!” soars, leaving us to revel in the exquisite afterglow of sonorous bliss.
Equally sumptuous is Conrad Susa’s Carols and Lullabies: Christmas in the Southwest. Written in 1992, it was a commission by and dedicated to Philip Brunelle and the Plymouth Music Series of Minnesota. Inspired by a collection of traditional Spanish carols called “villancicos,” which pre-dated printed music and whose meaning is the diminutive of “peasant” (with the first printings of these carols occurring in the 16th century), it features tunes originating in the Spanish regions of Biscay, Catalonia, Andalusia and Castile, as well as carols from Puerto Rico and Mexico. Seamlessly knit together and a bit earthier than the Britten score, the ten-movement, 21-minute work tells the story of the Nativity through the eyes of peasants. Susa juggles the carols to form a narrative, finding connections with Renaissance music in addition to what he called the tunes’ “homey, artful simplicity.” Orchestrated with guitar, harp marimba and percussion, the opus paints a festive tableau, the dominant image one of a Southwestern piñata party for the Christ child. Susa, who was born in Pennsylvania in 1935, explains: “In an often overlooked detail in the Christmas story, the New Baby bawls loudly as the shepherds leave in the final bars of the ‘Chiquirriquitin’ movement. His parents now must dandle and soothe him to sleep. Tired themselves, they drift off as the angels hover about them in protective adoration.”
Completing the program in which angels have not feared to tread are works from three other composers. Giles Swayne, who studied with Olivier Messiaen and was born in Britain in 1946, makes use of African music in his five-minute Magnificat, an a cappella piece commissioned from Christ Church College in Oxford. Written in 1982, the angular, rhythmic work features a chopped-up text scattered among the vocals, what medieval composers called “hocket,” intended to amp up excitement. Also British-born, Gustav Holst (1874-1934), who is perhaps best know for The Planets, weighed in on the holiday season with Christmas Day, a charming creation capturing all the anticipation, joys and hopes experienced every December 25th. Ending with notable flare is the 14-minute, A Christmas Flourish, arranged by Randol Alan Bass, in which the famous Disney Hall organ also helps pump up the already exuberant mood. Indeed, with this concert’s delectable music - be it familiar or foreign, airy or profound - embracing our souls, let us go forth then and celebrate life, in all of its brilliant, awesome majesty.
Victoria Looseleaf is an award-winning arts journalist and regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times, La Opinion and Performances Magazine. In addition, she is the producer-host of the long-running cable access television show on the arts, “The Looseleaf Report.” This is her fourth season as Program Annotator of the Los Angeles Master Chorale.