Pentatone’s new holiday release, “December Celebration,” contains seven compositions and one arrangement by some of America’s finest living composers. While the title suggests a focus on secular works, it is rather meant to encompass a wide range of influences, as these composers take us on a journey through the world of religious carols, secular celebrations and everything in between.
The major unifying factor to the album is its diversity. Although all seven composers are from the same country, the generational and stylistic differences are often enormous. Sonically, the use of chorus and strings is very heavy, although there is at least one element on each track that is unexpected.
In this regard, Corigliano’s piece stands out the most. Instead of the more traditional accompaniment, his “Christmas at the Cloisters” features a growling Hammond organ. Coupled with Lester Lynch’s deep baritone and William Hoffman’s decidedly Gospel-influenced lyrics, Corigliano’s piece demonstrates a fascinating clash between several hundred years of sacred music, all within three minutes. Harmonically, “Christmas at the Cloisters” is probably the most adventurous work on the album, achieving a remarkable amount of density with just two musicians.
On the other end of the spectrum from Corigliano’s experimental carol is the composition “Carol (Neighbors, on this Frosty Tide),” by Joan Morris and William Bolcom. Scored for the much more traditional ensemble of mixed chorus with piano accompaniment, this accessible piece provides a welcome moment of levity and textural lightness to an album which is otherwise very dense overall.
“Three Carols” by David Garner follows immediately after “Neighbors, on this Frosty Tide” on the album. This is a masterful choice as the first carol’s impressionistic beginning blends perfects with the previous song. However over the course of the three movements, Garner’s music travels in a very different direction. While continuously featuring interaction between baritone Lester Lynch and members of the all-female Volti Chorus, Garner takes us through a myriad of musical worlds, from the alternating energetic 6/8 and 7/8 sections of the second movement to the dense third carol, were the voices finally meet in powerful harmony.
Mark Adamo’s “The Christmas Life,” which opens the album, provides another essential grounding point for the listener. Drawing the audience in with a lush string arrangement and soaring soprano melody, Adamo quickly introduces surprising elements which provide plenty of fodder for the brain. Based on a poem by Wendy Cope, the lyrics combine modern holiday imagery with more religious references, which allows it to serve the function of several carols at once.
At over 15 minutes in length, Jake Heggie’s six-part “On the Road to Christmas” covers more stylistic ground than any other composition on the album. The first couple movements are relatively energetic, opening with an amorphous combination of pentatonic runs and pizzicato in the strings with Lisa Delan’s pure soprano soaring overhead. Featuring humorous references to other carols such as “God Bless You Merry Gentlemen” and “Angels we Have Heard on High,” the work reaches its true emotional depth around the fourth movement, at which point Delan’s vocals truly have the space to shine through the nostalgic harmonies.
In terms of its subject matter, it is Luna Pearl Woolf’s “How Bright the Darkness” that strays the most from the sacred root of Christmas carols. Subtitled “A Winter Solstice Carol,” the text is decidedly secular, and seems to make an almost deliberate reference to “a bear cub born in her winter lair,” rather than the traditional nativity scene. The piece begins with a dark and expectant texture created by distant percussion, harp arpeggios and female voices, only for this effect to be interrupted by the baritone entering with startling intensity, which is soon matched by the rest of the ensemble. The prominent role of the harp, which is featured in a brief interlude, and the sleigh-bell percussive effects make this composition a true sonic world unto itself.
The remaining two works on the album include one composition and one arrangement by Gordon Getty. His “Four Christmas Carols” finally elevate the chorus to the central role of the ensemble, and each small carol, while short, is a gem that one could imagine would easily be heard in church on Christmas morning. Gordon’s arrangement of Franz Gruber’s “Silent Night” occupies the coveted position at the close of the album. It is certainly an interesting choice to include the only arrangement in such a prominent place. However it becomes instantly clear upon listening to the beautiful orchestration why this choice was made. Just as the arrangement unifies text in three different languages it also serves as a unifier for the whole album, reminding the listener that everything they have listened to so far has in fact been inspired a particular aesthetic.
The subtitle to “December Celebration” reads “New Carols by Seven American Composers.” This album is proof that terms such as “Christmas carol” and “American composer” are not nearly as specific as they might seem. Although all the compositions bear some of the traits of traditional Christmas carols, either in their text, subject matter or tone, almost every track sets a remarkably different mood. With a few exceptions, the album is nostalgic and reflective, more reminiscent of carols such as “Silent Night” than “Jingle Bells.”
The concept behind the “December Celebration” was not one that was guaranteed to work, but with such skilled and experienced composers on board, it is no surprise that the result was immensely effective.
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