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Nashville Scene Tough Stuff

Holiday concerts get to the heart of the matter

By Marcel Smith

DECEMBER 14, 1998:  Musically, the holiday season is mostly déja écouté all over again. From Atlanta/ Boston/New York westward to Fort Disney, orchestras do concerts where divas and divos share the stage with pop and country stars. Some of the music is "classical"; all of it is hum-along, its aim to render us cozy and generous.

Certainly there's no harm in "Hallelujah," or in families singing songs to help them imagine they really are a close-knit clan. But such programs often drown out music that can authenticate the reality that we are more than smarm and bottom line. Vital music does survive, however--music that vivifies hope and joy without blinking at anguish. Last Sunday, our city got three performances of just this kind.

It's easy to forget, amidst jingling bells and roasting chestnuts, that the Christmas story has a lot of horror in it--and that in some Christian liturgies, Christmas joy always foresees Easter anguish. The Magi were smart enough to follow the star to Bethlehem--and naive enough to prompt Herod to slaughter a city-full of male infants. There's even a carol that tells this tale. Indeed, the carol tradition undergirding all three of last Sunday's performances often dances barefoot on stony ground, contrasting arduous actuality with hope for something better.

Two of the performances offered a Service of Nine Lessons and Carols, while another featured Ralph Vaughan Williams' Hodie, a Christmas cantata written in 1953-54, a few years before the composer's death. All three performances played to full houses--though none was quite so spacious as TPAC or the Arena.

Though the carol comes down from the Middle Ages, the Service of Lessons and Carols took form in 19th-century England. The Service is a stylized liturgical drama: A human community enters a space that emblematizes its common dependency and, through texts recited and sung, reflects on its shared history and hopes before going out again into a perilous world. The core is a sequence of nine scripture readings, each usually recited by a man or woman personifying some aspect of community. These readings are linked by intervening carols and anthems sung by the choir, together with several hymns sung also by the congregation. The texts and music together epitomize the biblical history of humankind from Genesis to the birth of Jesus.

The Service took its best-known form in 1918 at King's College, Cambridge, a month after the end of the "Great War" that destroyed thousands of Britons and maimed thousands of others. Every year since, on Christmas Eve, the service has been performed in King's College Chapel, and since 1928 it has been broadcast over the BBC (whence it is now carried, live or via tape delay, by many public radio stations, including our own WPLN-FM90). Emulations are enacted all over the English-speaking world.

One emulation was offered last Sunday afternoon by the Scarritt-Bennett Singers, directed by Angela Tipps, in Wightman Chapel. The other was offered that evening by the choir of St. George's Episcopal Church, directed by Wilma Jensen, in the church's superbly responsive sanctuary.

Both Services, following tradition, were built around the same readings, beginning with the primal error of Adam and Eve and ending with St. John's account of divinity taking on human form. But the music in the two services had only one carol in common, and together both programs showed the fecund vitality of the carol tradition. Most of the texts were from the 14th through 16th centuries, though most of the music was composed or arranged by 20th-century musicians. The musical language, elegant and contemporary, was not at all "folksy."

The Scarritt-Bennett service featured the Capitol Brass quintet, which played before and after the service. Most of the carols were sung unaccompanied in a space that showcased the accurate, expressive musicianship of the two dozen accomplished singers. The congregational hymns were accompanied by the organ and joined at climactic moments by the brilliant jubilant sonorities of the brass.

The St. George service featured a youth choir and a children's choir, together with the chancel choir, an exquisite violinist, and breathtaking solo work by Cara Schneider and Christi John. In both performances, finely tuned voices showed yet again what a rare treasure acoustic music is. The result was two versions of the same ancient story--it was like hearing Kenneth Branagh and Liam Neeson reciting different editions of one soliloquy.

Of the two services, St. George's was the more adventurous--beginning with an exuberant processional of dancing damsels (recalling the medieval origin of the carol), a droning hurdy-gurdy, a gong, bells, percussion, and choir and congregation singing an upbeat ostinato "O come, O come, Emmanuel." The carols following showed a wide and varied range, from an almost bawdy "Adam Lay Ybounden" through light and graceful Palestrina to the subtle dissonance of "I Look From Afar" by Anthony Piccolo (b. 1946). The concluding recessional, a meditative 11th-century text, foreshadowed the cross to come.

Later that evening, West End United Methodist choir presented Ralph Vaughan Williams' Hodie, directed by Don Marler. Taking its title from the Latin hodie Christus natus est ("today Christ is born"), this cantata is a more elaborate working of the lessons-and-carols form. And Vaughan Williams did not simply assemble the music; he composed it all himself.

The texts come from a range of sources--the Bible, John Milton, Martin Luther via Miles Coverdale, Thomas Hardy, and Ursula Vaughan Williams (the composer's wife), among others. The variety of texts and the ambitious score produced a variety of musical textures--baritone, tenor, and soprano soloists; small treble choir; large adult choir; and ample orchestra.

The undertaking was ambitious and by no means perfectly realized. Most notably, in the very lively hall, the orchestra overpowered the singers, who did not clear every hurdle. And yet, maybe for that reason, the music had a gritty actuality that was much more moving than some studio distillation. The composer's powerful genius was undeniable, and the full house vigorously handed out applause.

Much of that power grows out of Vaughan Williams' own intense skepticism, together with his awareness of the power of human yearning. Perhaps the cantata's radiant gist is the composer's luminous setting of Thomas Hardy's "The Oxen," a short poem that equilibrates the great pessimist's refusal to affirm what he could not know and his great hunger after redemptive vision.

For the carol makers, for Milton, for Hardy, for Ralph Vaughan Williams, God's love is exceedingly tough. This music might help us know that, and be glad. Certainly, it's a lesson we won't hear anywhere else in the unstoppable tide of holiday music that washes over us this time of year.

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