Holiday tradition returns to Symphony Hall in Christmas with the ASO

Christmas with the ASO
December 9 & 11, 2021
Atlanta Symphony Hall, Woodruff Arts Center, Atlanta, GA

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra & Chorus, Norman Mackenzie, conductor; Morehouse College Glee Club, David Morrow, director; Gwinnett Young Singers, Lynn Urda, director.
Various Christmas repertoire (29 selections)

Mark Gresham | 10 DEC 2021

The English word tradition comes from the Latin traditio, the noun derived from the verb tradere (to transmit, hand over, give for safekeeping). Roman law used it to refer to legal concepts of transfers and inheritance. Current meaning evolved during the Age of Enlightenment as a somewhat pejorative view of tradition as opposed to modernity and progress.

The unifying concept is that tradition refers to beliefs, objects, or customs of the past, transmitted from one generation to the next, which continue to be viable and practiced in the present.

More recently, we hear the term “living tradition” bandied about as being “faithful continuity to the past while meeting the needs of the present and thinking about the future” or at least the passing of traditions “of value” from one generation to another.

Traditions can be hundreds or thousands of years old. Or they may even be “invented” and span just a few recent generations, with the presumption that at least two transmissions over three generations are required to make an event or practice a cultural “tradition.”

Under the latter criteria, Christmas with the ASO (initially called “Christmas with Robert Shaw”) is a tradition almost a half-century old. It has persisted as a hallmark seasonal event for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus year after year, an exception being 2020 when pandemic conditions canceled it.

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Thursday night’s Christmas with the ASO, led by director of choruses Norman Mackenzie, marks the first performance by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus since the shutdown. The Morehouse College Glee Club and the Gwinnett Young Singers joined in as guest choruses, a time-honored collaboration in this seasonal favorite.

This time, however, all of the choristers sang wearing masks. A necessary caution as the pandemic remains an immediate health concern with large indoor gatherings and may or may not be winding down. The COVID-19 Delta variant has been making its way across the world, and the new, fast-spreading Omicron variant continues to pose many unanswered medical questions.

But Christmas with the ASO is a persistent program designed by the late Robert Shaw to bring joy, hope, and light into times of darkness. It is not by any means a haphazard collection of Holiday favorites but has a deliberate dramatic and emotional arc.

True that different selections have changed over the years, though many have remained intact, Shaw’s original four-part framework remains unchanged. Think of it as a kind of programmatic “Christmas Symphony”:

  • Part One: “Prophecy and Advent”
  • Part Two: “The Stable”
  • Part Three: “Around the Christmas Tree”
  • Part Four: “Adoration”

Each part is a mix of Christmas music or music which is seasonally related or assists in the emotional thread of telling the story.

Through the course of the program, the audience heard a variety of music. European carols familiar to American culture and African-American spiritual song (“Go Where I Send There”; “Oh, Po’ Little Jesus”), plus a Nigerian Christmas carol (“Betelehemu”). Choruses from Handel’s Messiah (“And the Glory of the Lord”; “Hallelujah”), and Russian Orthodox tradition (“Heavenly Light”; Bogorodiste Devo”).

And there were other classical works related to the holiday or season (“March,” “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” and “Trepak” from Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker; “Farandole” from Bizet’s L’Arlésienne; “Shepherds’ Farewell to the Holy Family” from Berlioz’ L’Enfance du Christ).

ASO concertmaster David Coucheron was the soloist for the Allegro non troppo first movement of “Winter” from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, his solo well-stenciled against the orchestral accompaniment.

ASO principal cellist Ranier Eudeikis soloed in Pablo Casal’s arrangement of “El Cant des Ocells” (“Song of the Birds”), a traditional Catalan Christmas lullaby of haunting lyric beauty.

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Christmas with the ASO is almost unimaginable without one of its consistently high points each year: the Nigerian Christmas carol “Betelehemu” in an arrangement created by a collaboration between Michael Bàbátúndé Olatunji and Wendell P. Whalum.

A member of the Ogu people, Olatunji was born in the village of Ajido in southwestern Nigeria. He was groomed at an early age to be a chieftan (to replace his late father) but by age 12 decided that was not to be he destiny.

Olatunji received a Rotary scholarship in 1950 and attended Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, where he desired to sing in the Morehouse College Glee Club but never did. However, Olatunji became good friends with Glee Club director Dr. Wendell P. Whalum, and they collaborated on “Betelehemu.” Although he went to New York University to study public administration after graduating from Morehouse, he started a small percussion group to earn money on the side, and in 1957 was discovered and signed to the Columbia Records.

The percussion-intensive work is a favorite of audiences and a solid staple of the Morehouse repertoire.

Again, all of the choruses wore masks. That impacted the perception of words, taking away some of the clarity of articulation and making the overall sound of the ASO Chorus seem less present and vibrant — slightly “covered,” to use the obvious description. Interestingly, the Gwinnett Young Singers seemed least impacted by this, but their texture, vocal color, and volume are naturally light anyway. One cannot expect the same power and depth as seasoned adult voices.

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The big downside of this iteration of Christmas with the ASO was that two carol selections where the audience was to sing along (“The First Nowell” and “Adeste Fideles”) they did not seem to grasp that there was an invitation to do so. Except that it is a Christmas with the ASO tradition. Audience used to enthusiastically sing. More than half of them also seemed perplexed by the old Anglo-American tradition of standing for Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus. Some people stood, but it took a while for many around me to stand with uncertainty. Fifty years ago, that would not have been the case. The audience would have almost universally anticipated standing, however apocryphal the origins of the practice.

All of which brings us back to the original topic: tradition.

Christmas with the ASO is an Atlanta tradition that, again, goes back about a half-century. The program’s origins in the mind of Robert Shaw go back farther, well before he arrived in Atlanta in the late-1960s. And the music itself rooted in musical Christmas traditions that span hundreds of years, all told.

What will be the near-future fate of Christmas with the ASO? American society and culture have changed dramatically in the last 10 to 20 years. I’m not certain that the American culture that fostered Christmas with the ASO and made it a well-loved tradition in the latter 20th century isn’t something increasingly distant from today’s turbulent, shifting culture. And this is not the fault of the musical tradition itself.

I could write volumes about social changes and political forces that can easily eclipse these valuable cultural traditions if we fail to nurture and pass them on to future generations. And especially so if we do not promote and empower the broader social and human values which ultimately forged them. That is not simply a matter of doing things as they have been before, but reexamining, refining, rediscovering, and restoring the “living” elements that underpin those traditions and afford them those substantive values worth inheriting.

Mark Gresham

Mark Gresham is publisher and principal writer of EarRelevant. he began writing as a music journalist over 30 years ago, but has been a composer of music much longer than that. He was the winner of an ASCAP/Deems Taylor Award for music journalism in 2003.