Mark Gresham | 16 DEC 2022
Symphony Hall was packed last week for not two or three, but four Christmas with the ASO concerts presented by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra & Chorus and their guests, led by ASO director of choruses Norman Mackenzie.
Due to scheduling conflicts, one huge change from past years was the absence of the Morehouse College Glee Club. Their presence was truly missed, especially their show-stopping Nigerian “Betelehemu” by Babatunde Olatunji and Wendell Whalum. But Morehouse was still represented by tenor soloist Timothy Miller, an assistant professor of voice at the college who has become a regular presence in Christmas with the ASO.
Another change was the children’s choir: Spivey Hall Children’s Choir, directed by Martha Shaw, sang instead of the Gwinnett Young Singers of recent years.
Created by the late former ASO music director Robert Shaw, Christmas with the ASO is a musical legacy that remains a “living tradition” for Atlanta audiences.
As Mackenzie noted about both Christmas with the ASO and Handel’s Messiah in a recent interview:
Much of Christmas with the ASO remains the same each year. Still, some changes occur, like a Christmas tree hung with ornaments, including many old favorites and occasionally added new ones. What definitively remains the same year to year is the almost symphonic four-part format and its section titles:
Part 2: The Stable
Part 3: Around the Christmas Tree
Part 4: Adoration
Together they form a single dramatic arc that spanned the concert, performed without intermission.
PART ONE: Prophecy and Advent
Alice Parker’s arrangement of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” has led off the program for decades. Its free deployment of motivic fragments in pitched percussion creates an atmosphere of anticipation and mystery before the chorus enters with the whole plainchant-derived Advent hymn.
The accompanied recitative “Comfort Ye, My People” (Mr. Miller) and the chorus “And the Glory of the Lord” from Handel’s Messiah followed, and in this performance, segued firmly together without pause (nor the aria, “Ev’ry valley,” between). Then came the orchestral “Praeludium” from Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis and the unaccompanied Russian chorus “Heavenly Light” by Alexander Kopylov. Part One ended with the first of two Christmas carol sing-alongs: “The First Nowell.”
PART TWO: The Stable
Part Two, “The Stable,” is a potpourri of pieces surrounding the birth of Jesus. It’s the longest in terms of the number of selections incorporated and is where more programming changes seem to take place over the years, depending on guests—especially this year with the absence of Morehouse Glee Club.
Spivey Hall Children’s Choir got their featured moments here, first with two selections from Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols, the first, “Hodie Christus natus est” together with the women of the ASO Chorus, the “Wolcome Yole!” on their own. Harpist Elisabeth Remy-Johnson accompanied each, as she did with another SHCC number, “Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day.” A little later, ASO pianist Peter Marshall accompanied their final featured number, the traditional African-American spiritual “Go Where I Send Thee.”
Mr. Miller was spotlighted again in Franz Schubert’s “Ave Maria” and Adolphe Adam’s “Cantique de Noël.” In Thursday’s performance, soprano Arietha Lockhart sang the solo in Alice Parker’s arrangement of “So Blest a Sight,” which she shared with soprano Amanda Hoffman in alternate concerts.
One notable practice in Part Two was twice pairing a choral piece with an orchestral response based on the same tune. The choral “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” (Michael Praetorius) was followed by Erich Leinsdorf’s orchestration of Brahms’ choral prelude for organ, “There Is a Rose in Flower,” which briefly elaborates upon Praetorius’ melody. Likewise, the Shaw/Parker choral arrangement of “March of the Kings” set up the orchestra’s performance of the “Farandole” from Bizet’s L’Arlésienne.
“Away in a Manger,” arranged by Parker, was also in the Part Two mix. The final two numbers of the section were “Bogoroidiste Devo” from Rachmaninoff’s Vespers and the “Hallelujah” chorus from Handel’s Messiah.
PART THREE: Around the Christmas Tree
The secular Part Three began with three pieces by Tchaikovsky. First, “March” and “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” from The Nutcracker (and the ASO musicians played them much more convincingly here than the week before in the Suite). Then came the “Russian Dance” from Swan Lake, featuring concertmaster David Coucheron playing the sizzling showpiece violin solo.
The music turned to the choral side with the macaronic 15th-century “The Boar’s Head” English Yuletide carol. A pair of Hollywood-ish arrangements of “I Saw Three Ships” and “Deck the Halls,” from Robert Russell Bennett, finished off Part Three.
PART FOUR: Adoration
Mr. Miller led off the program’s final part with his touching unaccompanied performance of “Sweet Little Jesus Boy.” Acting principal cellist Daniel Laufer was the soloist for the lovely traditional Catalonian carol “El Cant de Ocells” (“The Song of the Birds”) arranged by Pablo Casals.
The nativity story ended with “Coventry Carol” (arr. Shaw), which sings of the threat posed by King Herod, followed by Hector Berlioz’ pastoral “The Shepherds’ Farewell to the Holy Family” from L’Infance du Christ. The concert concluded on a celebratory note with the audience sing-along of “Adeste, fideles” (“O Come All Ye Faithful”).
If there is anything that most needs future adjustment in Christmas with the ASO, it is audience participation. Not reduced or eliminated, but increased.
When expected to stand and sing, or even the archaic practice of just standing for the “Hallelujah Chorus,” many audience members on Thursday night seemed perplexed, not knowing what to do, as if they’d never stood up and sung en masse before. And quite possibly, they hadn’t. It is a learned communal action in which participation begets participation.
There were only two opportunities in the program for the audience to participate in that manner: “The First Nowell” and “Adeste Fideles” (“O Come All Ye Faithful”). Instead, there should be more sing-along carols. Four in all might be the ticket.
Two easy opportunities for remedy already exist in the 2022 program sequence: “Away in a Manger” in the middle of Part Two and “Deck The Halls with Boughs of Holly” at the end of Part Three. Both of these could be sing-along carols instead of just performed to a passive audience.
That would allow Parts One, Three, and Four to conclude with audience participation. Part two ends in a good climax with the “Hallelujah Chorus.” But part two is also rather long, with 16 numbers in all, while the other three parts have only five or six. “Away in a Manger” at number 11 in Part Two seems an excellent spot to include another sing-along carol.
These participatory moments are essential in programs like Christmas with the ASO, as they are “the voice of the people, upward and outward,” in response to what they have just witnessed.
Ultimately, it all comes down to traditions being communally shared experiences worth keeping. They are what we do together, not what is done for or to us. That’s both how and why we pass them along to new generations. ■
- Atlanta Symphony Orchestra: aso.org
- Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus: asochorus.org
- Norman Mackenzie: aso.org/artists/detail/norman-mackenzie
- Timothy Miller: timothymillertenor.com
- Spivey Hall Children’s Choir: spiveyhall.org/education/childrens-choir