Christmas with the ASO, 2019. (credit: Jeff Roffman)

ASO’s holiday choral concerts are a vibrant “living tradition”

Mark Gresham | 12 DEC 2022

Among the various holiday programs presented by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in December are a pair of choral-orchestral concerts that have a long-honored legacy in this city.

First is Christmas with the ASO, created by the late Robert Shaw, originally called Christmas with Robert Shaw.

The other is the Christmas portion of Handel’s Messiah, which is Part I of the three-part oratorio with the “Hallelujah Chorus” that concludes Part II tagged on at the end. Vivaldi’s Gloria will precede it on this year’s program.

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As the most direct heir of Shaw’s choral legacy, ASO Director of Choruses Norman Mackenzie once again takes the podium this year to lead the two iconic seasonal concerts.

Christmas with the ASO, featuring the ASO Chorus and guests with the orchestra, will be performed four times at Atlanta Symphony Hall:

  • Thursday, December 15, at 8:00 pm
  • Friday, December 16, at 8:00 pm
  • Sunday, December 18, at 3:00 pm
  • Sunday, December 18, at 7:00 pm

Handel’s Messiah, Part I, will be performed twice by the ASO Chamber Chorus and a smaller contingent of the ASO musicians. First, at Hugh Hodgson Concert Hall at the University of Georgia in Athens on Wednesday, December 21, at 8:00 pm, then again at Atlanta Symphony Hall on Thursday, December 22, at 8:00 pm.

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EarRelevant’s publisher Mark Gresham contacted Mackenzie ahead of these scheduled concerts to ask his thoughts about them as examples of a “living tradition” for Atlanta audiences and about the current state of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Choruses post-pandemic.

Tradition is, after all, the act of passing things of cultural value from one generation to the next. That those traditions continue to remain vibrant and vital is of utmost importance.

Rather than split his response into a Q&A dialogue, we will let Mackenzie speak his mind to readers uninterrupted. Here is what he has to say:

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Norman Mackenzie:  I honestly feel that the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Choruses have actually emerged from the challenges and frustrations of the pandemic even stronger than when we had to shut everything down in March 2020. This is very exciting to me and a bit unexpected, as many institutions have had the opposite experience.

Norman Mackenzie, ASO Director of Choruses (credit: Jeff Roffman)

Norman Mackenzie, ASO Director of Choruses (credit: Jeff Roffman)

I think this is largely due to two factors.

First, the commitment and dedication of our longtime members who were determined to ensure that this chorus would have a bright future post-pandemic and helped me to keep the flame alive through technology and other means while we were in a group-singing vocal “desert.”

Second, I’ve worked hard through our careful audition process the past few years to infuse our ensemble with as much new, young vocal talent as possible. I regard this as a major responsibility of my job as Director of Choruses, and I hope we are beginning to reap the benefits of this sustained effort.

Many of our new members are conductors themselves in churches or schools, and are able to carry our disciplines and rehearsal methods back to their own choirs.

Members of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus in performance. (courtesy of the ASO)

Members of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus in performance. (courtesy of the ASO)

This combination of performance and education is the lifeblood of any large chorus and is obviously a win-win situation for all concerned. It embodies the mission of our founder, Robert Shaw, who fervently believed that this ensemble could have the heart of the amateur combined with the precision and skill of the professional. And it positions our chorus to join our friends in the orchestra in an exciting new chapter under the dynamic and inspired leadership of Nathalie Stutzmann.

It occurs to me that the next two series of concerts are a perfect illustration of this combination of old and new. In some ways, they are the most traditional concerts of our season. But in another way, we are constantly introducing something lasting and meaningful to new generations who either participate on stage or listen in the house. In today’s fractured culture, there seems to be a real hunger for these sorts of shared artistic experiences, and I think these two programs fill that niche admirably, while offering an alternative to other kinds of holiday programming.

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The wonderful musical and dramatic arc of Christmas with the ASO was created many years ago by Robert Shaw for his CBS radio broadcasts and enlarged and refined during his tenure in Atlanta. There is hardly anyone in Atlanta who didn’t grow up going to these concerts in December. Many of our listeners tell us they don’t feel it’s truly Christmas without it.

Shaw used to compare the musical design of these concerts to decorating a Christmas tree. You want all the familiar and beloved ornaments from years past on the tree every time, but there’s always room for something new and different as well.

George Frideric Hande (portrait by Balthasar Denner, c. 1726 - 1728)

George Frideric Hande (portrait by Balthasar Denner, c. 1726 – 1728)

In contrast to the musical potpourri of Christmas with the ASO, Handel’s masterful and dramatic re-telling of the scriptural birth narrative in Part I of Messiah remains one of the true miracles of western symphonic choral literature.

While CWASO is largely an Atlanta tradition, Messiah has a shared history worldwide among performers and audiences alike. It is a true work of genius from an incredibly gifted musician, composer, and dramatist. It is so elegantly and persuasively crafted, and yet approachable, that audiences and musicians return to drink from its deep well of creativity time after time.

Many in the audience and on stage will have grown up singing or playing these beloved choruses. However, even more exciting to me is the fact that there are always those in the audience who will be hearing it for the very first time. Like all great art, that can be a life-changing experience. And that may be the essence of why we do what we do in the ASOC.

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About the author:
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.