Notes From the Podium

On December 13th and 14th, Albany Pro Musica will perform “Christmas Around The World” at the Carondelet Hospitality Center in Latham NY.

Much of tonight’s concert tells the Nativity story through carols from various traditions, songs that depict the familiar characters, events, and themes of the stable, supported by instrumentation indigenous to the cultures that produced them. In fact, the evening might very well be seen as a metamusical primer of how Christians from different centuries and different parts of the world announce their joy at the holy birth.

Mary is, of course, a central figure in the story, and she is featured prominently in no fewer than eight numbers. “A la nanita nana” is a Spanish lullaby for female chorus, guitar, flute, replete with the typical nonsense words a mother might make up on the spot to comfort her child. “Dormi, Dormi” is an Italian carol (with soprano solo) in 2/4 and 3/8, as Mary encourages crying baby to go to sleep. In “Carol of the Drum,” when the poor boy asks to honor the infant with a song, Mary nods at him to do so: an encouraging maternal figure.

However, Jesus is no ordinary infant, and Mary is not quite an Everymother . In the Austrian song “Da droben vom berge” Mary – who is in a valley, shadowed by the Alps? – initially holds the newborn in her lap with typical pride, but then she lifts him up to heaven, and the angels’ hallelujahs suggest that this child is destined for a life unlike any other. Mary is mentioned, too, in Morten Lauridsen’s modern setting of the ancient “O Magnum Mysterium,” with the following words: “Blessed is the Virgin whose womb was worthy to bear the Lord Jesus Christ.” Here, then, Mary is seen as much a vehicle for bringing the divine Jesus to earth as she is his “biological” mother. She is featured as well in the three carols arranged by American composer Stephen Paulus: the traditional “The Holly and the Ivy” and the extraordinary “This Endris Night” and “Wonder Tidings,” carols from the 15th century that conjure up a rather metaphysical relationship between Mary and Jesus: she recognizes him as more than her child; he speaks to her and affirms his uniqueness, yet asks for her maternal warmth. Extraordinary language!

Other characters? The Wise Men, of course, whose wearying journey is depicted in the rhythmic Argentinian song “Los Reyes Magos,” part of Ariel Ramirez’s 1965 suite called Navidad Nuestra. The chorus is here supported by guitar, harpsichord, bongo, and bells. There are shepherds, too, who make an appearance as hunters in “Huron Carol,” a fascinating blend of the Old World and the New World. The text is by Fr. Jean de Brebeuf, a 17th-century martyred missionary in Canada who set his words to a Huron melody. In it Jesus is wrapped in rabbit fur, not swaddling clothes; and the entire event takes place in a lodge, not a stable. But the story is familiar, and de Brebeuf even makes the text ecumenical, with a dash of Latin.

Finally, Jesus himself, qua Savior. “Il est ne!” is a French carol celebrating, as the first line says, “the divine Christ child.” The elements of the humble birth are alluded to, but what comes through here is the joy of an Old Testament promise being fulfilled. “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” was a hymn text by Methodist minister Charles Wesley (1707-1788), ultimately set to music by Felix Mendelssohn. It, too, honors the divinity of Jesus (the Incarnate Deity, the Godhead veiled in flesh).The same can be said of the opening number, “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen,” Michael Praetorius’s setting of the German text that similarly acknowledges the long-awaited offspring of Jesse’s (the father of King David) lineage. And “Betelehemu,” a Nigerian Christmas song in Yoruba, kicks the celebration up a notch. Backed by drums, this shout of gratitude to God for the gift of his son explodes with shifting meters and strong accents.

But tonight we are also celebrating the season with a handful of secular pieces, albeit ones influenced by the Christmas story. For example, “Ritsch, Ratsch, Filibom” is a brisk and light-hearted Swiss number that is sung while dancing around the Christmas tree. But evergreen trees (like holly and ivy) flourish even in rough weather, suggesting—perhaps religiously?—everlasting life. Similarly, “Los Reyes” refers to a Latin American tradition in which children leave bits of grass in a box under their beds as food for the camels of the Three Wise Men, hopeful that they will be rewarded with presents themselves. “Las Trullas de Navidad” honors a Puerto Rican custom that grows out of the notion of hospitality that was only partially extended to Mary and Joseph by the harried innkeeper. Contemporary carolers go to the homes of friends in the middle of the night, and for their talents, they are given food and drink. “Jingle Bells” is, of course, the modern tale of the best impulses of the Christmas season: laughter, music, and—at least in the Capital Region– snow.

Which brings us to “White Christmas” (in this arrangement by Roy Ringwald, with a touch of “Silent Night” at the end). This most Christian popular favorite by the Jewish Irving Berlin certainly seems an apt conflation of religious traditions for this time of year.

Buon Natale! Prettige Kerstdagen! Joyeus Noel! Feliz Navidad! Frohes Weihnacten!

~~ Paul Lamar

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