Christmas music for heathens

Look–Christmas music is complicated. I don’t mean musically, although we’ll mostly be enjoying the more complex stuff today. No, I mean it’s complicated. For one thing it’s everywhere, ubiquitous and inescapable, a wide variety of excessively familiar tunes in every imaginable genre and style, covering everything from infant refugees to flying reindeer. We’ve got some of the oldest western music ever written rubbing elbows with ‘40s ballads and ‘50s jingles and ‘90s dance hits, all of it competing for a season’s worth of psychic space, blanketing the sonic terrain every year with promises of sugar, snowflakes, and salvation.

Few American traditions get more tangled than Christmastime. If you’re a believer, Christmas is an annual reminder of Easter, the price of which is Good Friday–Christ was literally born to die. And for us heathens, it can be a little disorienting toggling between Secular Shopper Santa and creepy lines from, say, Handel’s Messiah, the ones that sound like threats, stuff like this:

Why do the nations so furiously rage together; and why do the people imagine a vain thing?

The kings of the earth rise up, and the rulers take counsel together against the Lord, and against his Anointed.

Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.

And this year, as we all stay home avoiding holiday traffic and shopping frenzies and the plague, we’re also ratcheting down the manic consumerism and cranking up the loneliness and icy alienation that’s always been a big part of this Winter Tradition. Forget about visiting; we can’t even properly smile at each other these days.

Ah, but “while there’s life, there’s hope”–and faith, and love, and joy. I recently celebrated the season by enjoying the hell out of three distinctly Christian Christmas Concerts, featuring three of my favorite Oregon music groups: Cappella Romana, In Mulieribus, and Portland Baroque Orchestra. These livestream videos are all expiring PDQ, so here they all are. Listen now, read later.

A tale of the Christ

Okay, before we go any further into the Serious Stuff, I’d like to share a sing-along and a movie scene.

Movies are one of the finest Christmas Traditions–and we all have a variety of favorite holiday films, right? At the very least, you need a Normal Favorite and an Edgy Favorite, and probably also a Frivolous Favorite (e.g. The Nightmare Before Christmas, Die Hard, and The Sure Thing).

Here’s a scene from one of my newer favorites, Joel and Ethan Coen’s Hail Caesar!–A Tale of the Christ:

The word Mannix is looking for is “incarnation.”

The other Christmas Tradition I’ll miss the most this year is caroling and family singalongs, one of the few occasions when excessive familiarity with the music is a good thing. Group singing is one of those spiritual activities that is older than humanity, and very few communal endeavors have the same power to bind us together. The best part of any Church service is invariably the singalong.

So if you’re in the mood for some Normal Christmas Music, here’s your last chance to hop on The Magical Sled before we dive into The Immaculate Mystery. Pour another mug of eggnog, light up the Tannenbaum, and tune in here for a Winter Wonderland Sing-Along, hosted by All Classical Radio’s Suzanne Nance and Andrea Murray, starring a quartet of Portland Opera musicians: soprano and PO Artistic Advisor Karen Slack, flutist Adam Eccleston, David “Karaoke Pianist” Saffert, and (perhaps most excitingly) countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen.

Quite contrary

I’d like to begin by asking that we all take a moment and imagine the familiar Nativity Story from the perspective of its actual hero, Mary. Put yourself in the shoes of this young woman, unexplainably pregnant in a colonized theocratic society that will put her to death if she can’t come up with a better answer than “a dove did it” (yes, this is in the Bible). Even assuming that her virgin birth story was literally true, Mary still had to convince Joseph and everybody else. Either way her best bet was to do the same thing so many unexplainably pregnant women used to do right here in America: disappear for awhile.

But we’re talking about the Original Bible Epic here, so this is the part of the story when a cabal of astrologer-kings shows up from the Mysterious East, bearing weird gifts and asking a lot of pointed questions about a prophesied King of the Jews whose birth has been foretold in the stars. That’s alarming news to the reigning King of the Jews, Herod the Great, a Roman collaborator and one of the most perfectly terrible puppet dictators in a book full of terrible, terrible puppet dictators. Herod decides, quite rationally, to eliminate this potential threat to his power by killing every male infant in his jurisdiction.

And so Mary secretly gives birth to God in a barn–a naturally messy and desperate scene considerably sanitized in your local nativity set–and then manages to get her son out of town while the rest of Bethlehem’s infants get slaughtered, just like the bad old days in Egypt, which is also where Mary and Company take refuge and hide out for a couple years, waiting for Herod to die so they can immigrate safely to Nazareth.

That’s the world Mary lived in, the world into which she manifested the Son of God, the world in which she eventually had to watch him get executed. Again, this is all in the Bible.

And right here, dear reader, lies one of the most universal meanings of the Incarnation, transcending the finer theological points and “Mere Christianity,” elevating the whole affair to the level of Universal Myth. It’s the Union of the Material and the Immaterial, the Vesica Piscis/Ichthys hologram, the Marriage of Heaven and Hell. It’s the Holiest of Holies brought down into the dirt to suffer and die like the rest of us.

“The Kingdom of heaven is within you,” Jesus would later tell his friends, and you can hear echoes of that all the way down through our history, from the Emerald Tablet’s “The father of all perfection in the whole world is here / Its force or power is entire if it be converted into earth” to Yoda’s “Luminous beings are we / Not this crude matter.”

And if this all sounds like a way of enjoying Christmas music without believing in Christ, that’s because it is.

Livestream trinity

It’s been an open question whether these newfangled livestream concert experiences can hope to scratch the same itch as Honest to God Live Concerts. The obvious answer is “of course they can’t, don’t be ridiculous.” But can they deliver something else, something equally nourishing, an experience as appropriate for savoring at home as live shows are for consuming in public?

Well, dear reader, if you already watched the three videos above you know the answer: hell yes!

Let’s start with PBO, because Handel’s Messiah is easily the worst Christmas music that still deserves to be called music. Not that it’s bad–it’s all quite beautiful. No, the problem, paradoxically, is that it’s popular. It’s like those pop albums that have that One Big Hit and a bunch of other songs you never, ever actually listen to.

So PBO’s Pocket Messiah feels a little like hearing a popular band eschewing the hits and playing mostly B-sides and deep album cuts. The concert was recorded this November at The Sentinel Hotel in Portland, with PBO boss Monica Huggett (always an absolute delight at the violin) and four of the area’s finest singers accompanied by portative organist Jonathan Oddie (the organ is portative, not the organist) and an occasional string quartet. Everyone was in masks, but good mics and good musicianship made that Not A Problem.

I ended up loving this concert out of all proportion, surprised by the authenticity and vigor that prompted a similar reaction from Alice Hardesty three years ago. If it was shocking to hear afresh all this fussy old music that I’d thought myself so exhaustedly familiar with, all credit for that goes to Huggett and the other performers. Even more than audiences and critics and the Medicis, it’s the musicians who keep resurrecting this music, century after century, incarnating the invisible light and shining it into the hearts of “all those who have ears to hear.”

And although this is one time when “too long” doesn’t matter–thanks to the pause button, a comfy couch, and the freedom to attend the show in sweatpants–the “Pocket” was just right. Just a taste of Handel, a well-balanced hour’s worth of arias and recitatives and instrumental breakdowns. And, most importantly, none of those damned bombastic choruses!

One song from the concert stood out, not only for its exquisite musicality but for its charming pandemic-borne special effects. Halfway through “He shall feed His flock,” while Oddie keeps the tasty Baroque filigrees going, alto Hannah Penn (singing comfortably lower than her usual mezzo range) finishes her segment and dissolves before your very eyes–just as soprano Arwen Myers fades in, stage right, and begins singing. Captain Janeway to the transporter room, please.

It’s complicated

“Well, this was supposed to be a really busy year for Cappella Romana,” says bass David Krueger at the beginning of what turns out to be as much a mini-documentary as a holiday concert. The movie (directed by Kenton Waltz) is well-produced, and about half of it is heartfelt interviews with various of the group’s members talking about the joy of singing together again, and how much they look forward to singing for us again. The feeling is, of course, mutual.

The rest of the movie is beautifully-recorded quarantine concert footage, CR doing what they do best. Taken all together it’s a good little hybrid film, the kind of mutated new art form we’ve been rooting for ever since everything closed. The musical program itself is a bit of a grab bag compared to more long-form CR concerts like Rachmaninov’s All-Night Vigil and Kastalsky’s Requiem. Start with a healthy cross-section of Orthodox text-settings by mostly modern composers, among them Greek electro-acoustic composer Michael Adamis and CR conductor John Michael Boyer. Throw in some much older stuff and contributions from regulars Peter Michaelides and Ivan Moody, then bundle up a sheaf of ordinary-but-lovely Richard Toensing carols between everything else, and what you have is essentially a label sampler. The subtitles even tell you which album each song is on.

After the show, I cruised over to the ample Cappella Romana Record Store, skipped Lost Voices (for now), and dove straight into their 2000 album When Augustus Reigned–because that’s the one with Adamis’ “Magi, Persian Kings,” a concert standout–and from there directly to 2017’s Sun of Justice, the one with the subtly complicated Byzantine compositions conducted and solo chanted here by Boyer. This is precisely what I love hearing this group sing, and it’s also Christmas music I can really get behind, deliciously gnarly, rich with augmented intervals and enchanting drones and melody, sweet melody:

Watch this one now, because it’s only available online “through January 7 (December 25 on the Julian calendar),” according to CR’s website.

Behold a great mystery

All throughout director Ben DeMarco’s magnificent Pacific Northwest drone footage–which accompanied most of the terrifically peaceful In Mulieribus concert Visions of Mystery–I kept thinking of H.D.’s “Oread” and the thorny nature of incarnation. Misty mountain forests and icy rivers flow by underneath us, nature footage constructed for the concert’s three contemporary compositions: another Ivan Moody tune (the glorious “Cum natus esset Iesus”), Torontonian composer Kelly Marie Murphy’s lush, angelic “The Darkest Midnight in December,” and Terre Roche’s “Star of Wonder.”

When we’re not droning through Nature, we’re in the church among the women. After a brief video introduction from Artistic Director and co-founder Anna Song, we hear IM singing 13th-century counterpoint in Portland’s St. Mary’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.

The bittersweet medieval text, “Stillat in stellam radium,” is conveniently appended to the video comments in both Latin and Vulgar English, but the sound of the singers is the real star here (you don’t speak Latin either), and if I start trying to describe the soulful purity of this choir I’ll run out of year before I run out of enthusiasm.

And so here is where I leave you until next week, when we’ll listen back through The Thousand-Year Year together and see what we hear. For now, beloved Oregon and Beyond, I wish you all a Merry Christmas!

Want to read more music news in Oregon? Support Oregon ArtsWatch

Want to support Black lives in Oregon? You can sign Resonance Ensemble’s open letter to the mayor and governor right here, and you can start learning more about racial injustice and police reform with Campaign Zero‘s #8cantwait campaign and the original Black Lives Matter.

Join the discussion

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.