On the other side of the ledger, I’d eat glass ornaments before voluntarily submitting to performances of “Jingle Bell Rock,” “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” or even “Little Drummer Boy,” though I started percussion training at age 12. The only redeeming recording of “Drummer Boy” is by Marlene Dietrich, who sounds like she could barely be roused from her opium bed to slur the most languid rum-pa-pum-pums you’ve ever heard.
And as a former percussionist, I have an ambivalent relationship with “Sleigh Ride,” following an accident during my senior year of high school. Each previous year I’d played the whip part with a slapstick I’d built out of two 1-by-4s and a hinge. In my farewell performance, my last holiday concert, I waited anxiously through the final phrases for the trumpeter to impersonate the horse. I whipped with relish — only to have a foot-long chunk of wood crack off and go flying into the chimes. So it sounded like the horse had been KO’d — just like in “Blazing Saddles.”
I’ve also produced a CD of choral Christmas music, which taught me the following lesson: If you want to kill, or at least maim, your Christmas spirit, listen to 22 takes of “Silent Night” in a cinder block church on a hot day in August. My technique for boosting choral morale was to preface comments to them with a line from “It’s a Wonderful Life.” It’s amazing how a tenor section snaps to attention when you shout, “Hey, look mister, we serve hard drinks in here for men who want to get drunk fast!”
My standing holiday romances are with three very different classical pieces. Each is a collection of short, disparate numbers, and for those of us who love them, they fly by all too quickly.
They’re Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker,” “A Ceremony of Carols” by the 20th-century English composer Benjamin Britten, and the glorious new “El Ni¤o” by the Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer John Adams.
“The Nutcracker” is so popular, and so ubiquitous, that it’s easy to forget how good it is. (And hard to imagine that it wasn’t successful at its premiere.) If you need convincing that it’s real music, not just a procession of pretty tunes, find a recording by the Kirov Orchestra and newly minted superstar conductor Valery Gergiev. The music comes alive in a way you might not have known it can.
I don’t turn to “The Nutcracker” for the usual reasons — the “Dance of the Sugarplum Fairies,” the “Trepak,” even “The Waltz of the Flowers,” though that waltz has a rapturous extra tune stuck in the middle like the prize in Cracker Jacks. I wait for the end of Act I, and the “Waltz of the Snowflakes.” Out of simple fillips and a melody that’s as simple as breathing, Tchaikovsky paints an unforgettable picture of winter. The masterstroke in this waltz is the introduction of a chorus, usually a children’s chorus.
Young voices are also the focus of Britten’s “A Ceremony of Carols,” a collection of tiny pieces on medieval poetry. The cycle is no longer than a sitcom episode, but it encompasses all the emotions of the holiday — joy, wonder, anticipation, majesty, peace. And it makes sense that angelic voices should be accompanied by the angels’ own instrument, the harp. I’m partial to an old Hyperion recording featuring the boys of the Westminster Cathedral Choir.
The sixth movement of “Ceremony” is based on the 500-year-old poem “As Dew in Aprille,” which compares the Christ child to a gentle blanket of moisture on the grass. The same poem opens Adams’ “El Ni¤o,” a blend of biblical texts, antique English texts and poetry in Spanish, mostly by women.
We can only read about the first “Nutcracker” performances. The Nonesuch CD of “El Ni¤o” was recorded just after the 2000 premiere, and it’s superb. In a musical language that mixes modernism, minimalism and the directness of folk song, Adams tells the story of the Nativity with drama and sweet sensitivity. And as in the “Nutcracker,” the end of Act I of “El Ni¤o” is stunning.
Gabriela Mistral’s poem “The Christmas Star” begins, “A little girl comes running, she caught and carries a star.” The poem, and Adams’ music, build in intensity as the girl runs and runs, aflame but refusing to release the star: “She runs without a body, changed, transformed into ashes. . . . and now we all receive her because the entire Earth is burning.”
As the music swells to an ecstatic climax, Adams adds words by the medieval abbess and mystic Hildegard von Bingen: “And the Son of God through her secret passage came forth like the dawn.” The music trails off into sparks, embers, exhaustion, renewal, the future. If you’re partial to the musical shorthand of “Silent Night,” the tapestries of “El Ni¤o” or the confections of “The Nutcracker” — and whether or not you treat Christmas music as faith or secular art — there’s music in the season to be savored, especially because it’ll be gone all too soon. S
Mark Mobley is editor in chief of Style Weekly. He has been musical head of NPR’s “Performance Today” and music critic at the Virginian-Pilot.
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