If you’re sated by endless repetition of the same old versions of the same old holiday tunes, salvation, in the form of quick digital downloads, is just a click or three away. Here’s what’s in rotation at my family’s gathering.
Portland Gay Men’s Chorus: Sing & Swing the Season
This jazzy, just-released take on seasonal sounds forsakes the fa la la la las for other no less appropriate fare: Portland-born composer Morten Lauridsen’s modern classic “O Magnum Mysterium,” “For Unto Us a Child is Born,” a couple of Hanukkah pieces, the spiritual “Go Tell it on the Mountain,” which really should be a top choice every Christmas, Latin rhythms on pieces like “Stomp the Halls,” a perky “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” and a dozen other not so familiar holiday tunes. Accompanied by a wind orchestra and swing band, both led by pianist Michael Barnes, and recorded live (and occasionally sometimes sounding a little boomy as a result) at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium, Portland’s Westminster Presbyterian Church and Vancouver’s Skyview High over the past couple of years, it’s a fun holiday CD.
Cantus: Christmas with Cantus
The superb Minneapolis-based men’s chorus’s new holiday record, in contrast, is a much more solemn affair, showcasing the group’s rich harmonies in modern arrangements of half-millennium old carols from France, England, Slovenia and beyond, plus newer works by John Tavener and others, familiar tunes (“Carol of the Bells,” “Do You Hear What I Hear?, Franz Biebl’s “Ave Maria,” Hugh Martin’s touching chestnut “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”), and even a couple of Native American tunes, including an oldie from the Muskogee.
Eileen Ivers: An Nollaig: An Irish Christmas
A predictably livelier affair, the Irish American fiddler’s 2007 disk kicks off with an exuberant “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and proceeds through various relatively obscure and sometimes wistful carols and jigs, a gorgeous guest appearance by the unmistakeable voice of Susan McKeown, and a few familiar tunes, including Vince Guaraldi’s modern classic, “Christmastime is Here,” the album’s highlight.
Anonymous 4: The Cherry Tree
The word “carol” encompasses a lot more than Christmas and a lot more than the dozen or so we typically hear this time of year. Take the title track, in which fetal Jesus responds to angry Joseph’s “The Supreme Being knocked you up? Yeah, right” by commanding the cherry trees to bow down and give Mary a little fruit and Joseph a little comeuppance. Like many of the songs on this sublime 2010 comeback collection from the planet’s pre-eminent female vocal ensemble, it dates back half a millennium, but the version affectingly sung solo by A4’s Marsha Genensky — who though ironically obscured into anonymity by her group affiliation, surely belongs at the top of any list of today’s finest singers — comes from Kentucky. It and other Appalachian folk hymns here collected in an 1820s songbook connect to the album’s startling variety of medieval carols and ballads via texts, tunes or stories. And together, they perfectly bridge the medieval and early Renaissance repertoire that made A4 famous, and the group’s more recent and equally successful forays into traditional Anglo-American sounds (American Angels and Gloryland). Although, as scholars as well as performers, they’re careful to tailor their delivery in the appropriate idioms, you hear the common thread winding across the ocean and down the centuries.
John Zorn: A Dreamer’s Christmas
Guaraldi’s surprisingly melancholy Peanuts tune also highlights my favorite holiday album since, well, A Charlie Brown Christmas. And I thought Bob Dylan had made the least likely Christmas album. Jazz’s most iconoclastic composer, who founded a terrific Jewish music record label, makes an utterly delightful jazz Christmas record — perhaps not so surprising when you consider the crack lineup (guitarist Marc Ribot, pianist Jamie Saft, percussionist Kenny Wolleson, bassist Trevor Dunn, drummer Joey Baron and more) he’s enlisted.
The Beach Boys: Smile
OK, maybe not entirely seasonally appropriate except for the fact that it was released last month just coincidentally in time for the Season of Acquisition. But it does start with a wordless prayer that’s as lovely as any short choral piece you’ll ever hear, and one of its two masterpieces, the poetically post apocalyptic “Surf’s Up” ends thus:
I heard the word
a children’s song
A child is the father of the man
A children’s song
Have you listened as they played
Their song is love
And the children know the way
Which fits the spirit of the season. This is one masterpiece that will never really be finished, in the sense of realizing its initial ambitions; we’ll never know what might have been if auteur/composer Brian Wilson hadn’t wilted in the face of the era’s technological limitations, the album’s endlessly recombinable modular compositional concept, his own mental illness and pharmacological immoderation, and resistance from bandmate Mike Love and his record label. But after decades of awaiting an official release of the most famous album never made, hearing a convincing assemblage (the second since Wilson’s own 2004 remake) is like finding a long-awaited Christmas present that had been stuck in the chimney for 45 years, which is when most of the material was recorded. It reveals that Wilson merited the ultimately stress-accolade as one of the 20th century’s greatest composers, bestowed upon him by no less august an authority than Leonard Bernstein around that time.
This psychedelic history of America from Plymouth Rock to blue Hawaii pulses with poetry, good vibes, magnificent music and, yes smiles. Wilson’s “teenage symphony to God” represents the pinnacle of popular music’s artistic achievement, and demonstrates that avant garde ambition (including dashes of aleatoric and musique concrete techniques) and accessibility can not only co-exist but flourish. What Wilson created in that magical stretch between 1966 and ’67 belongs at the very zenith of 20th century American music, and on your holiday playlist.
And if you’re interested in some homegrown Oregon classical music recordings — whether for gifts for others or for yourself — check out my reviews of new CDs by Portland Baroque Orchestra, Oregon Symphony, Oregon Guitar Quartet, Vagabond Opera, Martingale Ensemble and Cappella Romana in the current issue of Eugene Weekly.