BY PETER RUTENBERG
Fast away the old year passes… Hail the new, ye lads and lasses! No one knows when humankind first celebrated the winter solstice. Certainly it is a tradition of many millennia, and, for much of that time, its focus would likely have been the natural cycle of renewal our pre-historic ancestors knew so well. Two thousand years ago, in a tiny village in Israel, in a lowly stable, the birth of a child changed the world. One hundred and sixty-five years before that, a small army from Judea vanquished a Syrian king, recovered Jerusalem, rededicated the temple, and saved a race from oblivion. That the brown earth can flourish green again, that the lost can be found, that grief can rejoice — all are reason enough for festivities. That it can happen every year with undiminished importance is nothing short of miraculous. To renew our spirits, Grant Gershon and the Los Angeles Master Chorale have cooked up their own special brand of musical magic, from the exquisite formality of the Baroque to the cozy familiarity of holiday favorites, which we hear in these Sounds of the Season.
The arrows of genius from Johann Sebastian Bach’s seemingly bottomless quiver hit their marks with maddening accuracy! Thus, when the most festive time of year approached, and duty called for a musical pageant, did he ask what the court dignitaries and church elders might like? With a house full of children, he didn’t need to. The innocence of their anticipation served as a North Star: Listen carefully to the opening strains of the Christmas Oratorio and you can almost hear him think, “Wilhelm, take your fife and drum!” Is it any wonder that flute and timpani were the instruments of choice?
So a wonderful tradition begins: Over the next few years, the complete cycle of six cantatas that make up Bach’s Christmas Oratorio will be featured on these annual holiday programs. Tonight: Episode One — Jauchzet, frohlocket! The opening chorus bursts forth with joy, made all the more exciting by unison proclamations amid the florid counterpoint. A brief recitative introduces a lilting alto aria: the opening section in a minor key discusses the readying of Zion’s house, while the second section in contrasting major key gains in anticipation of the arrival of her Bridegroom. Like the sudden appearance of Maleficent at Sleeping Beauty’s birth, the well-known Passion Chorale rears up, conjuring in the music’s undercurrent the specter of the crucifixion, while reiterating in the text the congregation’s need to prepare for his birth. A terse reference to scripture marks a recitative for soprano — Mary’s birthing of Jesus in the manger “for there was no room in the inn.” The bass soloist intervenes in preparation for his aria, a heroically animated expression of triumph. To conclude, the chorus intones a gentle lullaby, while the orchestra barely conceals its exultation in reply.
Music before 1600 was all about the human voice’s innate beauty, magnified by choral expression. Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina’s creations graced the hallowed spaces of Santa Maria Maggiore, San Giovanni in Laterano and the Cappella Sistina in Rome during the 16th century, where, together with fine arts and architecture, music reached the pinnacle of its artistic achievement. In the brief motet Exultate Deo the psalmist summons a band of instruments to praise the God of Jacob, beginning with the drum, psaltery and harp. At last, the trumpet heralds the celebration of the new moon.
Morten Lauridsen’s motet, O Magnum Mysterium — a serene yet probing impression of the manger scene — has become an international “hit” in the eight years since its premiere on this very stage and subsequent recording on the Lux Aeterna CD. It was his first work as the Chorale’s Composer-in-Residence. This music shines radiantly, like the very gifts of the Magi, and was itself a gift in the form of a commission from Marshall Rutter to his bride Terry Knowles.
Los Angeles composer J.A.C. Redford is well known to film and television audiences for his numerous music scores. He first collaborated with the Chorale in its May 2000 production of Hollywood Goes Classical. Shepherd Story is an inventive recounting of the birth of Jesus, with texts adapted and written by the composer. Popular in style, the music bears sophistication and childlike wonder in equal measure.
The second half of this program offers a lovely sequence of unaccompanied pieces, book-ended by a stirring collection of favorite carols in orchestral arrangement. Gustav Holst’s endearing medley Christmas Day features familiar tunes, tied handsomely in a bouquet by the recurring melodic ribbon of Good Christian Men Rejoice. Frederick Candlyn’s mid- 20th century arrangement of the ancient French carol, Ding Dong Merrily on High, rings joyously, while contemporary British composer John Tavener’s The Lamb washes the air with its unique type of sound painting.
While the Jewish holiday of Chanukah is known as the Feast of Lights, it really is the celebration of a military victory that saved the Hebrew race from ideological if not actual extinction. The enemy had so defiled the temple and its altar that it had to be cleaned and purified before it could be rededicated (Chanukah means ‘dedication’), including a waiting period for the sanctification of the oil. As the story goes, one day’s worth of uncontaminated oil lasted those eight days, for which the motto proclaims Neis gadol hayah sham! —A great miracle happened there! Cantor William Sharlin’s songs of welcome and celebration introduce Ron Jeffers’ setting of the traditional trio of Hebrew blessings that accompany the lighting of the first Chanukah candle.
Peter J. Wilhousky’s beloved Carol of the Bells, based on a Ukrainian carol, ushers in the favorite ‘counting’ carol, The Twelve Days of Christmas, arranged by John Rutter, and, for the grand finale, the Christmas Flourish by Texas composer Randol Alan Bass. The medley begins with William Billings’ Methinks I see a heavenly host, and dances through a mistletoe-laden arcade of benchmark carols, concluding these Sounds of the Season in glorious style.