The world-class vocal ensemble Chicago a cappella does Christmas choral music fans a real service by daring to create a program entirely of contemporary (primarily within the last 20 or so years) works that defy the usual and predictable holiday concert choices that guarantee instant audience familiarity and gratification (not that there’s anything wrong with those beloved, treasured standards!).
Most of the works featured here require a bit more-than-usual attention from listeners–the composers and arrangers obviously approached such common texts as “What sweeter music”, “Il est Né, le Divin Enfant”, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”, “Noël nouvelet”, “I wonder as I wander”, “Lo Yisa Goy”, and “The Huron Carol” with an idea to say something that hadn’t already been said. And they do–splendidly. Then we have entirely original pieces by Stephen Paulus (Splendid Jewel–from a 14th-century Italian text), Gwyneth Walker (The Christ-child’s Lullaby–inspired by a traditional Hebridean song), Richard Proulx (Prayer of the Venerable Bede–from a text found on the wall of Galilee Chapel in Durham Cathedral), and Danish composer Per Nørgård (En stjerne er sat–a dialogue between the Angel and the shepherds).
It’s a tribute to the power of the Christmas story and to its enduring, compelling fascination for composers that the best of them continue–more than 2000 years later–to devote their efforts to writing music to recognize and celebrate the birth of Christ. And we are fortunate to have choirs of this caliber to bring this music to us in a context that presents it most favorably and gives it a permanent presence in our listening repertoire.
Another of the disc’s strengths is the sheer variety of music, from the Nigerian setting of the text “For unto us a child is born” by Christian Onyeji, to Rosephanye Powell’s “spiritual-like” Who is the baby?, to Yemeni composer Chaim Parchi’s alluring Chanukah tune “Aleih Neiri”, arranged for choir by Zamir Chorale of Boston founder Joshua Jacobson. The nine singers of Chicago a cappella are absolutely right-on in every respect, and the sound is ideal. This is an unqualified success, a holiday treat, a musical bounty that will both challenge and enliven your Christmastime listening. Highly recommended! [11/17/2008]