December 20, 2016 by Jean
I think Christmas music may be one of those things you either love or hate. Recently, one of my nieces posted on Facebook that “Christmas music puts me in the exact opposite of holiday spirit.” Another niece agreed, suggesting that “It might have something to do with us being adults with no kids.” But despite being a single adult without kids, I love Christmas music.
I think a big difference between my nieces and me may be in how we experience Christmas music. For them, the experience is mostly of hearing Christmas music – and all too often, they are hearing sappy Muzak versions playing in stores. My own experience of Christmas music is singing it. In a typical year, I start playing my Christmas CDs right after Thanksgiving, usually in the car while I’m out doing errands and Christmas shopping. My all-time favorite is Julie Andrews’ A Christmas Treasure. I’ve been singing along with this since my parents acquired the LP when I was in my teens. Later, I had a cassette tape version to play in the car, and I was happy to find it on CD after that. During my teaching years, I used to sing along with Christmas music all the way north as I drove from Pennsylvania to Maine after turning in final grades in December.
This year, I didn’t move my Christmas CDs into the car until mid-December. But that was not because I had lost my love of Christmas music. Rather, it was because I was getting my needed dose of Christmas music elsewhere. This is the first Christmas since I joined the Maine Music Society Chorale and my first time singing in that group’s annual Christmas concert. I sang in Christmas concerts throughout my school years, first in the church choir, then in the high school glee club, and then in a college choral group. But all that ended when I graduated from college, and I hadn’t sung in a Christmas concert in almost fifty years.
Although it seemed a bit strange to begin rehearsing Christmas music on a steamy summer evening in early September, it was both a challenge and a joy. The theme for this year’s concert was music by American composers and included a broad range of music from religious hymns, to modern compositions, to Negro spirituals, to popular favorites. And no matter what type of music is being featured in the Maine Music Society Christmas concert, it always ends with an audience sing-along of traditional carols.
Getting to sing Christmas music in a group again will probably be the highlight of my holiday season. I learned some new arrangements of old favorites, and I especially enjoyed a lovely version of “Winter Wonderland” and a fun rendition of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” I also learned some new Christmas songs and was particularly enchanted by the two with which we began the concert. “A Simple Gloria” by composer Libby Larsen provided a joyful opening. The second song, “The Blasts of Chill December,” a musical setting by composer James Bassi of Norval Clyne’s 19th century poem, turned out to be particularly apt as cold arctic air barreled into Maine just in time for our concert. Among the more serious music we sang was the challenging “Christmas Triptych” by the late Maine composer and Colby College music professor, Peter Re. The triptych consists of of three medieval poems set to music, and I loved the juxtaposition of the medieval lyrics and modern harmonics. Learning this music was extra meaningful because Peter Re died just last spring and because some members of our chorale had been students of his at Colby College.
The usual venue for Maine Music Society concerts is the Gendron Franco Center in Lewiston, Maine. The Franco Center combines performance space with a focus on Franco-American cultural heritage and is located in a former Catholic church at the edge of Lewiston’s “Little Canada” neighborhood. Our concerts there always include two performances, one on Saturday evening and one on Sunday afternoon, and there is a general sense among chorale members that the Sunday afternoon performances are more enjoyable. That was true for me with this Christmas concert; the audience just seemed more engaged with the music and with us on Sunday afternoon. For example, it was the Sunday afternoon audience who laughed at the end of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” when chorale members shout “Watch out!” It occurs to me that audience members are more engaged on Sunday afternoon because we are more engaged with them. On Saturday night, the audience is in darkness; but on Sunday afternoon, as soft light streams in through the stained class windows of the performance space, the audience is visible. I found myself being more aware of how I was presenting the songs to the audience on Sunday afternoon, and I made eye contact with audience members. Surely that greater sense of interaction creates engagement on both sides.
Although our concert is over, I still find myself singing this Christmas music around the house. And, of course, I’m singing along with my Christmas CDs as I drive around completing preparations for the holiday.