The Music of Christmas
Upcoming Concerts to Make Your Spirit Merry
written by Carrie Steele with Louise Vest
From the magnificent Messiah, with powerful voices creating celestial harmonies, to the peppy, down-to-earth “Jingle Bells,” the melodies of the Yuletide draw us into the holiday spirit.
Music has been tied to Christmas for centuries. Some Christmas carols date back to the early 18th century. Today, carolers, jingle bells, choirs and holiday shopping music have become staples for holiday cheer. Few recording artists can resist cutting a Christmas album, and — brace yourself, because you know what’s coming — just about every radio station indulges them. Our community theaters make music part of their plays, as you hear in many A Christmas Carol, including the productions of both Chesapeake Music Hall and Colonial Players.
No month is observed more musically than December. Because this season brings more holidays than just Christmas, you’ll also hear Hanukkah music and songs dedicated to general peace and goodwill.
In Chesapeake Country, we choose among all sorts of live holiday music, from thrilling renditions of Handel’s masterpiece, the Messiah, to jazzy holiday tunes at Anne Arundel Community College, to bright young singers in the All-Children’s Chorus of Annapolis.
Concerts range from free to pricey, casual to classical and kid-friendly to elegant. Herewith, our preview of some of the traditional concerts that ring in the season.
|photo by Louise Vest
Attending an annual presentation of Handel’s Messiah is akin to returning to the ocean after a long winter away. Like a first glimpse of expansive sea, sky and sand, hearing the strains of this seasonal music is a kind of homecoming, an exquisite echo of years past floating upon a song of promise.
George Frideric Handel wrote the Messiah in just 24 days, but his three-part masterpiece, with Biblical passages as part of the music, has endured 262 years. First performed in 1742, the oratorio is now performed world-wide. Its three sections speak of Christ’s birth, death and resurrection; at Christmas, it’s Christ’s birth that is typically sung.
In Annapolis, two Messiahs are traditional: one, in two forms, by the Annapolis Chorale and Orchestra; the other by the U.S. Naval Academy.
Annapolis Chorale’s Messiah
At St. Anne’s Episcopal Church on Church Circle every December, the 31-year-old Annapolis Chorale and Orchestra present two versions of this holiday tradition.
The first is the Chorale’s Messiah by Candlelight, which continues beyond the Christmas section but does not encompass the whole oratorio. That 90-minute concert is illuminated by candlelight. The second, the Messiah for Families, sings only of the birth of Christ. Following that hour-long performance, families sing carols along with the full chorus and orchestra.
Beyond the Messiah, the Chorale’s repertoire achieves both depth and breadth, including Schubert, Strauss, Broadway hits, Puccini and Pops. The Chorale performs seven major concerts a year; they’ve had two concert dates at Carnegie Hall.
“This Chorale’s a very special chorus; they’re attracting notice,” says Chorale director J. Ernest Green, who is also music director of the Falls Church Orchestra, cover conductor for the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C., and a guest conductor of orchestras across the globe.
As artistic director of the Chorale, Green conducts a full 180-member chorus plus the chamber chorus and the chamber orchestra.
“We have over 250 people coming in for rehearsals every single week,” says Green, who also selects the programs and oversees the concert series. That breaks down to about seven main subscription-series concerts plus some dozen outreach concerts across the region in lcoations as diverse as the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. and soup kitchens.
He and the Chorale’s 32-piece chamber orchestra are the group’s professional musicians; the other 180 singers are volunteers.
Like Green, who hails from Severna Park, most of the singers and musicians live in Anne Arundel County, though a few come from as far as the Eastern Shore.
“I’ve only been with the chorus seven years, but some have been with it over 20 years,” says singer Katherine Hilton. “They wouldn’t think of leaving this choir. They absolutely love the experience of singing with the chorus. And for a singer, doing the Messiah is as fun as it gets.”
A few chorus members have also been members of the Naval Academy chorus and performed the Messiah there before joining the Annapolis Chorale’s 60 to 70 Messiah singers.
“We do the Messiah differently,” Green says. “Over at the Academy, they have a gargantuan chorus and everything is big; it’s a big place. At St. Anne’s, we try to match its power and majesty, but make it more intimate to fit the church. And we do it with close to the amount of singers used when Handel wrote it.”
Packing Christmas concerts is an achievement of talent buoyed by practice. Practice means that twice a week, Chorale members rush home from work, grab a bite to eat and traipse back out for rehearsal.
On a rehearsal night as their big night draws near, members wearing heavy winter coats drag into St. Anne’s Episcopal Church, the centerpiece of Church Circle in Annapolis.
“I didn’t think I’d be the roady for this group,” laughs Katherine Hilton as she hauls loads of sound equipment into the church.
Her husband, Seth, checks out the lighting.
Meanwhile, director Green analyzes the music with a couple of singers. “It’s a sense of mystery, until the B flat,” he says. “That’s the epiphany.”
When the orchestra is in place and the chorus, clad in sweaters and jeans, on stage, all weariness disappears, so eager are they for their voices to join forces and get Handel’s 18th century masterpiece right.
“One, two, three; bomp, bomp, bomp,” says Green, baton in hand, his whole body bouncing up and down on the podium. Each member holds a song book, but their voices run up and down the scales.
“Who are we missing, a soprano?” Green queries, steering their high-caliber voices in the melody’s channel. They regroup and try again.
“It’s a downbeat — keep it smooth,” he reminds.
“Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful,” he says as one set ends.
They begin again, and the violins spiral down in a whirlpool of sound that will pull the audience in — until, with a few quick movements of bows on strings, they are released, as the soloist begins.
At the podium, Green reaches out with his arms, then gathers in the swell of voices until they soften into a quiet eddy that basks beneath the soloist’s voice. When he releases them, they flow back into a pounding ocean of song, notes bounding forward toward the audience on the shore.
The storm of sound continues as instruments and voices dance to Handel’s mastery and the conductor’s baton. Voices fly to glittering, crashing crests that soften into captivating ripples of notes that trickle out to touch you.
Your epiphany comes when you realize how much you’ve missed this music. By the end of the concert, it’s difficult to pull up anchor. Like a first-felt sea breeze, hearing the Chorale’s beautiful Messiah is one of life’s moments of Ahhh.
Chorale’s Messiah by Candlelight, 8pm Fri. Dec. 17; and Messiah for Families, 3pm Sun. Dec. 19. Both performances include guest soloists Amy Cofield, soprano, Susan Flemming, mezzo-soprano, Bijay Ghosh, tenor and Larry Small, baritone; both shows conclude with caroling. Following the family program, the audience joins the full chorus and orchestra for sing-along caroling. Both @ St. Anne’s Episcopal Church, Church Circle, Annapolis. $28 w/age discounts: 410-263-1906; www.annapolischorale.org.
Messiah at The Naval Academy
Handel’s Messiah is elevated to lofty heights in the Naval Academy’s domed chapel. This is the 58th year for this Academy tradition, which brings 200 singers, an organist and an orchestra together under one roof to make powerful music.
“There’s great tidal waves of sound,” says conductor John Barry Talley. “The musical forces can shake the building; quite literally, you can feel the building move.”
Some 150 singers from the Academy’s men’s and women’s glee clubs, 50 singers from Hood College of Frederick and 28 Annapolis Symphony members do the shaking.
“It’s baroque,” says Annapolis Symphony Orchestra executive director Lee Streby. “We’ll have strings, an oboe, a few other woodwinds and a few horns.” Ensembles wouldn’t have included trombones or clarinets back in Handel’s era, Streby adds.
Talley unites the four music groups underneath the dome. The groups have rehearsed separately since August.
“What a kick! Even though it’s the same piece year after year, the energy is extraordinary,” Talley said. “It’s a living, moving thing — sheer energy.”
Though these groups gather before Talley’s direction year after year, they rehearse together just one evening before the first concert. It helps that many of the singers and performers return to the chapel already intimate with the music.
“The only tricky thing for us is how the soloists will handle the parts that are improvised: there’s a good deal of variation in this period,” says Talley of the 18th century oratorio, which includes solos with improvised elements at specific parts. Each soloist brings a unique flair to the song, making each year of the Academy tradition a bit different. “So I have to anticipate what the singer’s going to do,” Talley says.
Singing with Hood College has been a tradition since the beginning, when then all-women’s Hood College and the all-men’s Naval Academy combined for the 90-minute Messiah concert. About 90 Midshipmen also head to Frederick each year, where the two colleges perform Messiah the weekend before Thanksgiving.
The soloists include tenor Greg Kunde and bass Dean Peterson, both returning to sing with the Naval Academy’s Messiah. The women soloists are mezzo-soprano Jane Gilbert and soprano Korliss Uecker. All soloists who sing the Messiah have played major roles at the Washington Metropolitan Opera in the last few years.
“These are some of the best soloists in the world,” Talley said. “Getting such talent is possible through a major endowment to support fine arts, which the late Miriam Bryant underwrote.”
Also bringing the Messiah to life is chapel organist Monte Maxwell.
The piece is pure joy, Talley says. “The music creates a real emotional and artistic high of the best kind.”
8pm Sat. Dec. 11 and 2pm Sun. Dec. 12. Shuttle runs from Navy Stadium parking one hour before each concert. @ Main Chapel at United States Naval Academy, Annapolis. $25-$15; rsvp early; this is a sell-out: 410-293-8497; www.tickets.com
Candlelight at the State House
Music blends with candlelight, high ceilings and history to make rich holiday ambiance at the 29th annual State House by Candlelight celebration the first Friday and Saturday of December.
Friday night, Lt. Gov. Michael Steele makes opening remarks, followed with music by Chesapeake Youth Symphony Orchestra, Larksong a cappella group, Annapolis Chorale and the Arundel Aire Chorus. Saturday’s festivities include opening remarks by Gov. Robert Ehrlich, followed with music by Catonsville High School Steel Band, the All Children’s Chorus of Annapolis, Maryland State Boys Choir and Rockbridge High School Academy Choir.
Liz Barrett directs the All-Children’s Chorus of Annapolis, who are the annual Candlelight State House singers.
“When anything’s special, kids shine,” Barrett says. “It’s our favorite concert. The State House is a magical place. It’s sacred and holy no matter what your religion.”
The All-Children’s Chorus sings to many of the holidays of this season. Their State House repetoire includes music for everyone, not just carols: “Joyful Israeli Canon,” “Jeruselum of Gold,” and Hungarian “Hazi Aldas,” which means blessing for the house. They’ll also perform their annual “Under the Holly Bough,” which is a piece about putting aside hurts and starting anew.
“It’s really a piece about hope,” said Barrett. “Selection is so important. I like to choose music that has to do with peace and love among neighbors.”
Concert goers will surely feel close to their neighbors while under the State House’s dome: “The area seats about 400 people, and it’s always packed,” Barrett says.
Audiences come back year after year to start out their Yuletide.
“I think people like to come out for the kickoff for the holiday season,” says Sue Pitkin of the State House Visitors Center. “We usually have the same performers each year, although we always try to look for children’s groups.”
Adding to the mood, you’ll find a 25-foot Fraiser fir from Western Maryland decked out with ornaments made by kids throughout the state. Costumed celebrators mingle, delivering candy canes.
Dec. 3 & 4, 7-9pm @ Maryland State House, Annapolis. Photo ID required. Free: 410-974-3400.
Annapolis Chorale’s Celebration of Christmas
Before Annapolis Chorale heralds the Messiah, they deliver a holiday concert of more modern merriment.
A full chorus approaching 180 adult singers, 50 or 60 young singers from the Annapolis Youth Chorus plus a 32-piece orchestra make the Celebration of Christmas the biggest holiday concert in the area, says director J. Ernest Green.
Joining these hundreds of choral members is soloist Amy Cofield, a soprano who’s sung with the Chorale before.
“A professional soloist from New York, she’s a favorite of both our audiences and ours,” says Green.
Both Celebration performances include readings by actor John Astin — who you’ll recognize from The Addams Family TV show — of a series of poetic holiday selections, including “Twas the Night Before Christmas.”
Each year, new elements and old traditions focus on fun.
“It’s really exciting. Everyone is there to have a great time and that comes through loud and clear,” Green says. “We try to make sure we err on the side of keeping this enjoyable.”
Even if you’ve seen the Celebration before, you’re in for surprises this year. But you’ll still hear old favorites from past years.
“The basic format stays the same,” Green says. “Some pieces we keep each year like the sing-alongs. And it wouldn’t be a pops concert without Leroy Anderson’s ‘Sleigh Ride.’”
Traditional also is the Chorale’s “Sing We Now of Christmas.” At just two and a half minutes long, it’s a song that was missed by singers and audiences one year when the Chorale didn’t perform it.
“Someone said to me that this has become the feel-good event in Annapolis each year,” Green said. “That’s the best compliment we could get.”
Preview performance 7:30pm Thur. Dec. 9; already sold out for 8pm Fri. Dec. 10, @ Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts, 801 Chase St., Annapolis. $28 w/age discounts; RSVP: 410-263-1906.
Annapolis Youth Chorus
Before their appearance with the Chorale in the Celebration of Christmas, the Annapolis Youth Chorus’s nearly 60 youths put on a show of their own at St. Anne’s Episcopal Church.
“It’s right in the middle of Annapolis, and the acoustics in the church are fantastic,” says director Laurie Hays. “It’s home for us.”
All the youth joining voices in the four-year-old youth chorus hail from Anne Arundel County.
“The music will span lots of eras,” says Katherine Hilton.
At this festive concert, you’ll hear the all-German “The Snow Carol”; and “Sing Noel,” a song based on a chant sequence. Other songs include “Something Told the Wild Geese,” “All the World is Winter,” and pieces by Vivaldi and Benjamin Britten.
Joining the Youth Chorus this year is singer/songwriter Mack Bailey, a local musician who plays with the band Hard Travelers.
“He’s been on the music scene for years and done a lot of solo work,” Hilton says. He’ll be performing two songs he composed, “A Boy’s Christmas” and “Starlight.”
“We’ve worked really, really hard,” Hays says. This concert is just us.”
7:30pm Sat. Dec. 4; $10: 410-263-1906; www.annapolischorale.org.
Annapolis Symphony Plays Holiday Pops: Bright, Shining Boston Brass!
For many families in Chesapeake Country, the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra’s annual holiday pops concert, sets the holiday tone. This year’s special treat is Boston Brass.
“Other orchestras have raved about them,” says Annapolis Orchestra executive director Lee Streby of the five horn players of Boston Brass, who play 120 concerts each year. “The brass is really going to go wild with the holiday music.”
Keeping them in line are 60 members of the Annapolis Symphony
“The top thing is the quality of our music,” Streby says. “Our soloists are at the top of their field, helping us gain that high-quality, polished sound.”
Blending the two groups and soloists is guest conductor Sarah Ioannides, assistant conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. Ioannides has traveled the world, conducting orchestras in the United Kingdom, Germany and Japan.
Under her baton, you’ll hear holiday music ranging from a big-band “Jingle Bells” to Tchaikovsky’s “Waltz of the Flowers” from the Nutcracker Suite. You’ll also hear Leontovich’s “Carol of the Bells” and “O Christmas Tree,” amidst the mix of carols and spiritual and classic Christmas songs.
It’s not all serious, though.
“Our focus is on great music, but we incorporate fun elements as well to make the concert laid-back and casual,” Streby says.
Part of the fun comes via Boston Brass. “They use a bit of humor,” says Annapolis Symphony Orchestra executive director Lee Streby. “They’re said to be the Harlem Globe Trotters of the music world.”
Fun extends to the sing-along near the program’s end, when you’ll join the symphony for a few carols.
Get your tickets early, as this annual holiday pops concert regularly sells out.
8pm Fri. Dec. 17 @ Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts, 801 Chase St., Annapolis. $40 w/age and student discounts: 410-269-0907; www.annapolissymphony.org.
AACC Orchestra and Concert Choir’s Holiday Melodies
Like Santa, classic composers arrive for the holidays. The Anne Arundel Community College Orchestra and Concert Choir’s holiday concert features one 20-minute composition from each of the three B’s: Bach, Beethoven and Brahms.
“The three B’s are known as the three great composers. All had influennce on choral and instrumental music,” Doug Byerly, the concert’s conductor says.
But don’t let their high-sounding names scare you off, Byerly advises “These are pieces that are festive and vibrant; pieces that capture the essence of season.”
You’ll also hear two motets, or sacred choral pieces, one by a professor in Southern California, and the other an “Ave Maria.”
“It isn’t the traditional arrangement you’ve heard,” says Byerly “but it’s a beautiful setting for chior.”
The choir is made up of 36 singers, mostly students plus professionals, community members and public school teachers.
An extraordinary guest joins the college orchestra for Holiday Melodies. Ray Still — ranked as one of the top two oboe players in the world — was the principal oboist for the Chicago Symphony before retiring to Annapolis. He’s featured in Bach’s Magnificat, supported by the college’s 54-piece orchestra.
Guest soloists include locals as well as performers from Washington and New York. Jason Starns sang for two years at the New York Metropolitan Opera before returning to Annapolis. Student Joy Greene is an Annapolis native. Susan Vonsuhrke of Crownsville sings in the Washington and Baltimore region. Tenors Jay Austin Bitner and Kurt Hoffman are both Baltimore natives and Peabody Conservatory alumni now with the Washington Metropolitan Opera.
As choir, soloists and orchestra blend their music, you’ll be able to enjoy this concert no matter what your musical background.
“It’s music that’s as accessible to middle school students as to seasoned classical listeners,” says Byerly.
Dec. 10, 7:30pm @ AACC Pascal Center for Performing Arts, 101 College Parkway, Arnold. Tickets sold at door one hour before performace. $10 w/age, employee and student discounts: 410-777-2218.
Other Holiday Concerts
- Patuxent Voices Sing Christmas
Sat. Dec. 4: Catch the holiday spirit at this concert of holiday standards by the Patuxent Voices, a newly formed women’s vocal chorus. 7:30pm @ St. Peter’s Parish Great Hall, Rt. 765, Lusby. free: 410-586-1071.
- 4th Annual Celtic Christmas
Sun. Dec. 5: Add druidic dimension to your holiday with Celtic-style melodies by hammered dulcimer artist Maggie Sansone — plus Fred Lieder on cello, Lisa Moscatiello singing and playing guitar, Laura Byrne playing Irish flute and whistle and Rosie Shipley on fiddle. You’ll hear carols and spirituals in a mix of seasonal songs, from reverent to popular Christmas favorites. 4pm & 7pm @ Christ Episcopal Church, 220 Owensville Rd., West River. 4pm: $10 w/age discounts; 7pm: $12 w/age discounts; rsvp: 410-867-0346.
- Naval Academy’s Women’s Glee Club
Tue. Dec. 7: The Naval Academy Women’s Glee Club sings the season in its annual holiday concert. Tradition dictates that you’ll hear John Rutter’s “Dancing Song,” a 22-minute arrangement in six movements, with U.S. Navy Band’s harpist Emily Dickson and four soloists. New this year is an arrangement of “Ave Maria” by William Halwey and “Breath of Heaven” by Amy Grant. You’ll also hear specialty groups the Stowaways, a big band and swing ensemble, and the Sirens, an a cappella quartet. 7:30pm @ Mahan Hall at United States Naval Academy, Annapolis. Free: 410-293-8497.
- U.S. Naval Academy Band
Fri. Dec. 10: Celebrate the holidays in blue and gold as Jeff Wrenn leads the Navy Band in “Polonaise” from Nicoli Rimsky Korsakov’s opera, “Christmas Night,” newly arranged by the band’s Justin Skorupa. Soloist Heidi Schult performs “Gabriel’s Oboe.” Sing-along at the end of the concert, before Santa makes his annual visit. The concert is recorded and broadcast by WNAV radio. 8pm @ Naval Academy’s Mahan Hall. Free, no ticket required: 410-293-0263; www.usna.edu/USNABand.
- Jazzy Holiday at Anne Arundel Community College
Sun. Dec. 12: The AACC Jazz Ensemble does tradional jazz and big-band sounds as well as seasonal favorites, so you’re likely to hear both “Take the A Train” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Conducted by Douglas Byerly, AACC music coordinator, and retired U.S. Navy Cmdr. Raymond Ascione. 3pm @ AACC Pascal Center for Performing Arts, 101 College Pkwy., Arnold. $10 w/age and student discounts: 410-777-2218.
- Christmas/ Solstice Concert by Ensemble Galilei’s
Sun. Dec. 19: Ensemble Galilei of Chamber Music Annapolis seasons the Yuletide with the 15th annual Christmas/Winter Solstice Concert. The Ensemble’s holiday spirit plays traditional dances and airs from Scotland and Ireland, Renaissance music and Christmas carols on fiddles, Celtic harp, viola da gamba, Scottish small pipes, oboe and recorders. Special guest is Kieran O’Hare on Uillean Pipes, whistles, and flutes. Poetry, essays and stories read by National Public Radio’s Neal Conan help brighten your holiday, as does concluding candlelight reception. 3pm & 7pm @ Great Hall, St. John’s College, Annapolis. $20 w/age & student discounts; rsvp: 410-849-2494; Tickets by mail or web: Chamber Music Annapolis, P.O. Box 549, Crownsville, MD 21032; www.ChamberMusicAnnapolis.org.
Getting to the U.S. Naval Academy
Civilians with photo ID are welcome to Naval Academy events, but their cars are not. Park in Annapolis and enter the Academy through Gate 1 on King George St, or Gate 3 on Maryland Ave. Or come early to park at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium and take the shuttle to the Academy beginning one hour before show.