The first of two concerts in San Francisco's St Ignatius, a very longstanding and precious tradition for us. Tonight there were quite a few people remarking on the number of decades they've been coming. That's nice to hear. It's always an impressive and humbling experience to sing before this big hometown crowd which is so familiar with us.
1. The Bach Christmas Oratorio opens in the most exuberant fashion: trumpets, timpani, chorus and pure joy. I used to start my Christmas concerts with the Atlanta Symphony with this piece and it seemed to put us all in a festive mood.
2. Silver Bells? Me? It was my father’s all-time Christmas favorite, that’s why.
3. Messiah performances began to shift toward “period-practice” while I was just getting my feet wet in the music business. I was so impressed with the scholarly work Sir Charles Mackerras had done on Messiah that, when his recording came out (I was probably a sophomore in college) I was bowled over. Janet Baker knocked my socks off with this performance of this aria, which used to be taken far too slowly and probably far too seriously.
4. Also when I was a college sophomore: the Georgetown University Glee Club was invited to sing for Pablo Casals’ 95th-birthday celebrations in Puerto Rico. I was the pianist. After we had sung a small concert at his home on the morning of his birthday, he sat down beside me at the piano and played the “Carol of the Birds,” following which he said to me, “That is a song of my homeland but I think Brahms or Bach would be proud of it, don’t you?” Yessir.
5. I was introduced to Chadwick’s “Symphonic Sketches” by my mentor and friend Paul Hume, the late music editor of the Washington Post. The movement called “Noel” lodged itself in my brain and in my heart; I liked to include it in my Atlanta Symphony Christmas concerts, too.
6. Schwarzkopf’s Christmas Album (also, as it happens, with Sir Charles Mackerras at the helm) delights me year after year.
7. Ditto, Leontyne Price with Herbert von Karajan. If you’re gonna sing “O Holy Night,” then you need to sound this glorious. I live for Price’s clear-throated, heaven-touched high notes in this one.
8. I didn’t know Ives’ “Christmas Carol” until I joined Chanticleer. Since I am fond of Ives and love Chanticleer, it’s a good combination. Ives could be quite a trickster but he keeps his high jinx almost to himself in this song. It’s a sweet, Christmas lullaby that moved me a great deal when I first heard “our boys” sing it.
9. This beautiful French carol was part of my first Chanticleer Christmas. Our friend Michael Bresnahan, who was in the ensemble at the time, sang the solo. The sweetness of the piece, the elegance of the men’s voices, the simplicity of Michael’s approach moved me a great deal and I love hearing this song at Christmas.
10. Come on, what could be better?
11. Speaking of great movies (Blue Hawaii with Elvis, Meet Me in St. Louis with Garland) I had no idea this was coming when I first saw it. Oh, I already knew the song, I just didn’t know that Judy was about to sing it. It is something I shall never forget. Nobody sings it better.
12. The Atlanta Symphony Christmas concerts conducted by Robert Shaw invariably ended with this plea for peace that he shared with Bach, and with all of us. When Mr. Shaw died, it was an honor for me to be asked to take on his Christmas concerts and so I continued the tradition of ending with “Dona Nobis Pacem.” I can’t imagine a musical Christmas that doesn’t somehow begin and end with Bach.
I tried for a mix of known and unknown gems by my favorite artists. I imagined the kind of songs I’d want to play at a Christmas party, some ballads, some uptempo, a good mix of styles and eras. Enjoy!
Last Christmas, Wham: George Michael is a guilty pleasure. If you love eighties cheese like I do it doesn’t get much better than this.
Happy Xmas (War Is Over), John Lennon: I love this message. Lennon’s dedication to the idea of World Peace (think Imagine) is truly inspiring. It is so applicable year after year.
I’ll Be Home For Christmas, Beach Boys: The lush, slightly out of tune harmonies are so heart warming. I love the orchestral accompaniment on this tune too, not what you often get on their other albums.
A Warm Little Home On A Hill, Stevie Wonder: This song almost brought me to tears when I first heard it. It’s simplicity, heartfelt vocals, nothing beats Stevie. Everything he touches is gold.
The Secret of Christmas, Ella Fitzgerald: This song just slays me. Ella’s smooth vocals and poignant tremolo brings out the heartache of a spurned lover. Not all Christmas songs need be joyful. I chose this song for its sadness and nostalgia, which paradoxically accompanies the holidays too.
All I Want for Christmas is you, Mariah Carey: A classic. You put this on at a party and everyone goes nuts. Need I say more?
Santa Claus Is Coming To Town, Bill Evans: One of my favorite jazz pianists. I love the loungey feel he plays with on this classic tune. It’s got hints of stride style and bop. He always manages to balance the cerebral and visceral side of jazz with elegance and accessibility.
The First Noel, Bob Dylan: Did you know Bob Dylan had a Christmas album? You didn’t? Do you know why? IT’S HIDEOUS! I threw this one on for a good laugh. Dylan’s vocals are so shot, arrangements are incredibly plain, it’s a miracle this was ever made! Kory Reid, this one’s for you!
I’d Like You For Christmas, Julie London: Hands down, the sexiest voice in jazz. I want Julie London for Christmas!
Jesus, What a Wonderful Child, John Legend: Soulful, hard groove. Joe Jennings included this song in one of his Christmas medleys. Brings back memories of wailing on this tune in front of packed houses at our MET Museum concerts. That’s Christmas.
Honorable mention: check out James Brown’s Funky Christmas album. Hilarious and fun tunes with classic James Brown hysterics and groove.
Two Chanticleer tracks:
Die Stimmen des Kindes, Mäntyjärvi: Captures the mystery with his cool, chromatic lines and extended harmonies. By far, one of my favorite composers for us.
Coventry Carol, Rathbone: Haunting dissonances and intensity. Good balance of simple and complex chord structure.
[Editor's Note: The Bob Dylan track is unavailable on YouTube.]
We always look forward to bringing our Christmas concert into the smaller settings in which A Chanticleer Christmas has happened since we began. St. Vincent in Petaluma is one such, and the back to back concerts at 6pm and 8.30 are always packed with a relaxed and friendly audienc who have been coming for years. As you know Kory Reid left us this year after five years singing countertenor to become the Choir Director at Napa High School, his alma mater. It has been Napa's tradition to bus down to San Francisco and see our final Christmas concert in St. Ignatius. This year Kory brought his students to Petaluma where they sang for us and Fred after our concert.
All we had to contend with was the now legendary Bay Area traffic up route 80 to Sacramento. The familiar 'home crowd' in Sacramento made it all worth it.