Encores & Curtain Calls: Come one, come all, sing ye noel
“I once wanted to become an atheist, but I gave up — they have no holidays.”
— Henny Youngman (standup comic/violinist)
It’s not our fault, it’s Mama Nature’s; she’s the one who keeps immersing the planet in her never-ending cycle of flavors and colors: spring-splendors, summer serenities, autumn avalanches and winter wonders, forcing us to say goodbye to the old year and hello to the new, year in and year out.
For myself and my Mediterranean gene-pulls, I might be half-tempted to hang out in an endless summer, swimming my way from dawn until dusk, air-drying my way, barefoot, through the hours and days. But then, when a January morning reveals a fresh-frosted icing that silently illuminates the world and seems almost a prayer without words, I know that I am exactly who and where I want to be.
And so the winter equinox — and its Christian transliteration, Christmas — is upon us yet again and we must come together and celebrate. Of course, if we wish to be Scroogy about it, we could scrunch up in an easy chair in a dark and chilly corner at home and wait for the nonsense and humbug to pass. But, that would be a crying shame for there is so much life hidden inside all the ritual and the hoopla!
Better to pretend we’re believers and to enjoy the dance than to linger, sulking in the shadows, waiting for it to blow over.
For Christmas is, truly a universal phenomenon; indeed, Christmas is for all of us, incalculably far beyond creed or pedigree. Which is why I dearly hope and expect to see you somewhere this yule season, at a Messiah sing, a vesper vigil, a carol-sing, a hymn sing, a hootenanny — anything!
And there’s lots to choose from.
Arcadia Players’ “The Messiah”
The historically up-to-snuff (period instruments included) Arcadia Players will perform George Frideric Handel’s oratorio “The Messiah” on Friday, Dec. 20, at 7:30 p.m., at Abbey Memorial Chapel, Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley. Now in its 23rd season, the ensemble will be directed by Ian Watson.
Now, admittedly, “The Messiah” is something of a Christmas icon and is so pervasive that it is all too easy to sleepwalk through it. But, it is, in fact, a compelling and moving masterwork by one of the world’s great composers. In his book “Spiritual Lives of the Great Composers,” Patrick Kavanaugh relates the now-famous back story of how Handel barely ate during the 24 days he wrote “Messiah.” At one point, the composer had tears in his eyes and cried out to his servant, “I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God Himself.” He had just finished writing the “Hallelujah” Chorus.
“Messiah” came to him when he was 56, impoverished and facing bankruptcy and professional obscurity. In addition, he had some serious health problems. Also, the Church of England authorities were critical of him and his work.
But the heavens came through and “Messiah” proved to be his own “It’s a Wonderful Life” turn-around experience.
Handel’s sixth attempt in the genre of oratorio, “Messiah” had the added benefit of having the central figure of the gospels as its chief subject, never a bad idea for a good seller. After an initially modest public reception, it caught on and eventually grew to become one of the best known and most frequently performed choral works in Western music.
A chorus of soloists will join the orchestra in a historically-informed performance, on instruments similar to those played in Handel’s time.
Pioneer Valley Symphony Christmas Concert
Then there’s the annual Pioneer Valley Symphony Christmas Concert, always crisply choreographed to please all comers of every age and taste, a musical Christmas stocking guaranteed to be overflowing with goodies, on Dec. 21, 7 p.m. at Greenfield High School, with the combined forces of the PVS Orchestra and Chorus and Greenfield’s school choirs.
This year, amidst the seasonal offerings, there will be Tchaikovsky’s “Waltz of the Flowers” from “The Nutcracker” and “Sleigh Ride,” Leroy Anderson’s timelessly infectious musical tour through a yesteryear snowscape (be sure to listen for the horse whinny at the final bar). This is a piece that PVS is becoming so deft at delivering that it almost rivals the classic performances of the work by its prestigious cousin, the Boston Pops. Also being performed will be the climactic “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s “Messiah,” and 20th-century English composer Benjamin Britten’s “Ceremony of Carols.”
It is this last, “Ceremony of Carols,” which plunges deepest into my Christmas soul, ever since I chanced to hear it on a Christmas album some 45 years ago. I wasn’t expecting anything too extraordinary, just some pleasant yuletide yodeling in the finest British boy choir tradition.
Well, it was all that but ever-so-much more. It leap-frogged itself over the traditionally lush Christmas sonorities and challenged the ear and the heart with quivering, shivering dissonances that goose-bumped one’s flesh and spirit and brought all the chill, thrilling mystery of the winter equinox into musical relief.
Finally, two of Boston composer George Whitefield Chadwick’s “Four Symphonic Sketches” are also on the program, including “Jubilee” and one appropriately entitled “Noel,” based upon the following poem:
Through the soft, calm moonlight comes a sound; A mother lulls her babe, and all around The gentle snow lies glistening; On such a night the Virgin Mother mild In dreamless slumber wrapped the Holy Child, While angel-hosts were listening.
Tickets: adults $20; seniors (65 and over) $17; students with a valid ID and children under 18, $6.
An author and composer, columnist Joseph Marcello of Northfield focuses on music and theater. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.