Traditions Old and New

Here’s a note from Bob Christiansen on the great Messiah debate.

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As the holiday season is winding down, I look at the traditions that I’ve

cobbled together from my childhood and my preferences. Christmas Eve

dinner, an echo of long ago, is a meal where I bring together my Danish,

Swedish and German roots (red cabbage, potato sausage and spaetzele) and

Christmas music, of course, always has to include Handel’s “Messiah”.

It’s the music where things get really interesting because I love the old

Beecham recording (I know, I know, he uses 3 more orchestras and 6 more

choirs than he needs and even the arias can be heard in the Andromeda

Galaxy)! I don’t care. Handel was announcing the birth of the ruler of the

universe, and the Beecham version proclaims that with gusto.

On the other hand, there is the pure, clear, crystalline recording with John Eliot Gardiner, the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists; night and day. I love them both. I just alternate them from year to year.

Bob Christiansen

Billy Taylor, in Memoriam

Billy Taylor died yesterday. He would have been 90 years young in July.

As the New York Times obituary affirms, he was so much more than a jazz pianist and composer. He was also a teacher, television producer, civil rights activist, friend to Dr. Martin Luther King. He was also a jazz disc jockey who helped keep the peace in New York City in the wake of MLK’s assassination.

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I had the honor of talking with Billy Taylor in 2009 when he came to Minnesota to perform on the annual VocalEssence “Witness” concert. We had a pre-concert public conversation in the Ordway lobby. Billy also shared his fascinating story on the radio with MPR’s Euan Kerr. You can hear that interview again here.

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And enjoy Billy at his best — at the piano — here:

First the paint and now the podium…

So, let’s review – (from my buddy Hans Buetow)

7 feet, 1inch, and 325 pounds of basketball playing fury with five studio albums, 11 movies, and his own reality show. He’s had a record go platinum, has been nominated for a Razzie (in 1997 for Steel), is a reserve officer with the L.A. Port Police and Miami Beach Police, and an honorary U.S. Deputy Marshal.

But never has Shaquille O’Neal had such success as when he recently conducted the Boston Pops in a rendition of both Sleigh Ride and Queen’s We Are the Champions.

Conducted, you say? Like, with a baton?

Yes, indeed – a baton, tails, and a heap of head-bobbing, arm-waving, and finger-wriggling. Staring down the orchestra with an expression normally reserved for charging point guards, O’Neal controls and excites both the players and the audience, leaving us all with the obvious question: is there anything that Shaq CAN’T dominate?

And all the choirs are above average??

What are the greatest choirs in the world?

The British magazine The Gramophone assembled an international jury to select the 20 greatest choirs in the world. Number 1?: the Monteverdi Choir, led by John Eliot Gardiner. Not surprisingly, more than half of the choirs on the list are British. Quite surprisingly, none of the choirs are American! The ranking includes a companion essay by American choral composer Eric Whitacre who describes “why British choirs are best.”

Meanwhile, Minnesota choirs take a hit in a recent blog post by San Francisco music critic Chloe Veltman. She watched “Never Stop Singing,” the documentary about Minnesota’s choral tradition, and was not impressed:

“If you sing in a chorus in Minnesota, you will no doubt find the documentary deeply fascinating. But…’Never Stop Singing’ couldn’t be more dull for anyone who isn’t part of the MN scene. The film devotes way too much time to talking about what makes MN such a happy place for choral singing and doesn’t make any attempt to engage with the subject in an analytical way. It’s largely a case of repetitive back-slapping and self-congratulation.”

Nobody has commented on this review, so here’s your chance.

Memories and music

As Christmas Eve nears, it’s hard not to look back on my childhood in Nyack, New York (just north of NYC). December in our home was an especially busy time for my father, an Episcopal priest with a loving parish and a wonderful music program. When my dad passed away in 2002, I soon discovered that one of the most powerful ways for me to feel close to him was through music – which enriched his life in many ways. I have often felt fortunate to have that connection.

It’s likely that this time of year makes you recall your youth, too. If there are people or places that you miss, I hope music helps you hold on to those memories.

Caroling Caroling through the ages

Yesterday morning Philip Brunelle, director of the VocalEssence chorus in Minneapolis, was on NPR’s Weekend Edition talking with host Liane Hansen about Christmas carols.

Where did Christmas carols come from? How did they start? And how have they evolved?

Here’s a link to their conversation.

And tune in tonight at 8:30p to hear Philip Brunelle conduct VocalEssence in the annual “Welcome Christmas!” concert. It’s a tribute to the great composer John Rutter. Here’s VocalEssence singing one of Rutter’s most famous carols:

Sounds of my season

I frequently go through different phases of musical interest, much like everyone else who’s an avid music listener. I’m always in a Johann Sebastian Bach phase, although I guess that doesn’t count as a phase… it’s more of a state of being. My other favorites weave in and out of my soundtrack as often as my moods color my days. Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Beethoven, Brahms, Holst, Elgar, Copland, Haydn, Shostakovich, Mozart opera, etc.

But this December, I’m listening to Björk and Gustav Mahler. Both answers raise eyebrows, depending on with whom I’m having the conversation. Mahler, a Jew who eventually turned Catholic so he could work in Vienna? At Christmas? Mahler, who toiled through the topics of life and death with his music, the guy who turned the French nursery rhyme, “Frère Jacques,” into a sad, minor song? But when I think about how we’re trained to hear certain musical cues and associate them with the holidays, Mahler is a perfect fit for me. Take the second movement from his First Symphony (right before the famed “Frère Jacques” movement). The instruments dance buoyantly through a joyous melodic landscape, colored by bells and triangles, trills, and rips. Festive dance music, complete with jingling bells, something Mahler peppers through his music as often as the theme of death, and rebirth. In my own musical mind, Mahler was brilliant at painting a melodic scene quite worthy of any holiday playlist.

Now, if you’re wondering why I’d even mention Björk on our classical blog, and you feel adventurous, listen to her song Jóga; live strings often played by students from the classical music school she attended as a child. Happy Holidays!

A 3D Holiday Classic

For a lot of us, it’s a Christmas tradition – listening to the music from Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” or, if we’re lucky enough to have a ballet company near us, going to see it.

If you’re not familiar with the story, here’s a very brief synopsis (with thanks to the Houston Ballet’s website): It’s the story of a little girl named Clara who wakes up one night at midnight to find herself being attacked by giant mice. Life-size toy soldiers come to her rescue and they are led by a Nutcracker who, after he wins the battle with Clara’s help, turns into a prince.

After the battle, the Nutcracker Prince turns Clara’s house into the Land of the Snow and we meet the Snow Queen and the Snowflakes. Clara and her prince jump into an enchanted sleigh and head toward the Kingdom of Sweets. When they arrive, they meet the Sugar Plum Fairy who arranges for dancers to entertain them while they feast. Eventually, Clara drifts off to sleep…and when she wakes up, she’s back in her bed.

Sounds like just a lovely tale, doesn’t it? And Tchaikovsky’s music is beautiful. So I admit I was intrigued when I heard that director Andrei Konchalovskiy was making a movie based on the ballet, The Nutcracker in 3D. With the addition of several storylines, lyrics by Tim Rice (some set to Tchaikovsky’s music) and some pretty heavy political satire, the reviews have not been great. So it brings up a question: Mess with a classic? Or just leave it alone? And if you’ve seen it – well, what did you think?