Review: Tradition marks Christmas with the ASO, but spark is missing

Mark Gresham | 10 DEC 2019

Tradition is the passing along of that which is of value to the next generations.

Nowhere is this more telling than in the traditions of Christmas as expressed in the various performing arts. A each has its iconic works. Dance has “The Nutcracker.” Theater has “A Christmas Carol.” For most of the classical music world, it remains the Christmas portion of Handel’s Messiah – that is, Part One with the “Hallelujah” chorus tagged on at the end.

But in Atlanta we’ve long had a different central tradition in the choral-symphonic world: “Christmas with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.” Originally “Christmas With Robert Shaw,” it was the brainchild of Robert Shaw, the ASO’s music director at the time, who had long been esteemed as choral director and arranger. The form and character of the program established a firm position as a keystone the city’s annual Holiday events, and under director of Norman Mackenzie has continued to hold that position since Shaw’s passing. Small changes have been made to the program over the years, but the overall four-part arch has remained fully intact: “Prophecy and Advent,” “The Stable,” “Around the Christmas Tree” and “Adoration” – almost symphonic in its concept, and a very sturdy framework.


But tradition of that sort need to remain “alive” to be passed on. This year’s iteration, in four concerts this past weekend, unfortunately, felt rather “ordinary” and absent the program’s usual special energy on Friday evening. Most of the usual cast was there: The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, along with the Gwinnett Young Singers. Sorely missing was the absent Morehouse College Glee Club and their high;y charged performance of “Betlehemu” – instead, they sang as part of the ASO’s performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 last month. Reputable tenor Timothy Miller was soloist in four numbers, but it felt like he was really having to reach for the upper register on Friday, particularly in his first two numbers, “Comfort ye, My people” and “Cantique de Noël.”


The ASO Chorus itself sounded good, and exhibited a noticably “rounder” overall tonal character, a direction in which it seems to have been moving under Mackenzie in recent years (perhaps to better meet to musical goals of both music director Robert Spano and principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles, one might speculate), and that’s actually a good thing, especially given that the fundamentals of Robert Shaw’s technique are very much intact. But somehow the needed excitement of the context within which they sang wasn’t quite there to support them on Friday.

It’s not that the program itself needs to be overhauled – that is not the case. As previously mentioned, the details have evolved over time. What is needed is to rediscover the spark that made “Christmas with the ASO” as long-standing tradition in the first place, and rekindle the spirit and be fully vested in it. That’s the key. That can be done, and it is important to do so. It is a tradition worth passing along. ■