Artistic Director & Conductor: Mark Shapiro
Basque Carol: Gabriel's Message (Arr. David Willcocks)
J.H. Hopkins: We Three Kings - Danny Campbell, Joe Ancowitz, Joey Mele (Singers)
Dutch Traditional Melody: King Jesus Hath a Garden (Arr. Charles Wood)
Alice Dryden: Banu Choshech Legaresh - Danny Campbell (Tambourine)
Malcolm Williamson: This Christmas Night
French Traditional Melody: Shepherds in the Field Abiding (Arr. Charles Wood)
German Traditional Melody: Lo, How a Rose e'er Blooming
Kim Gannon & Walter Kent: I'll be Home for Christmas (Arr. Mac Huff)
Mykola Leontovich: Carol of the Bells (Arr. Peter Wilhousky)
Hugh Martin & Ralph Blane: Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas (Arr. Ken Neufeld)
Moses Hogan: Glory, Glory, Glory - Steve Underhill (Tenor)
Francis Poulenc: The Story of Babar - Jason Wirth (Piano)
Harry Simeone, Katherine Davis & Henry Onorati: The Little Drummer Boy
Jonathan Breit: Ocho Kandelikas
Elizabeth Poston: Jesus Christ the Apple Tree - Margot Bassett (Soprano)
English Carol: Wassail Song (Arr. Vaugh Williams) - Jason Wirth (Conductor)
Noel Regney & Gloria Shayne: Do You Hear What I Hear (Arr. Harry Simeone)
Franz Biebl: Ave Maria
Welsh Carol: Deck the Halls
West Country Carol: We Wish You a Merry Christmas
Franz Gruber: Silent Night (Sing along)
I am not sure when a tradition becomes a tradition, but Cantori New York's annual holiday concert, which I attended for the first time last year, can boast again about being the one and only holiday-related musical event on my calendar right now, and it will hopefully remain so for many years to come if they keep up the good work. Because when all is said and done, and you simply cannot bear the thought of hearing yet another round of The Messiah or putting up with the continuously perky sounds of the typical seasonal fare (not to mention the crowds) when stepping outside, there remains Cantori New York.
Breaking away from their avowed mission of presenting the best of neglected and contemporary choral music, once a year this distinguished ensemble led by its fearless music director and conductor Mark Shapiro reaches far and wide to come up with a list of popular and less well-known holiday songs, to which they add their always appealing, once in awhile unexpected, but never even remotely boring, twist.
So it was with much anticipation that yesterday I worked my way down to the concert at their lovely Greenwich Village home that is the Church of Saint Luke in the Fields to join a few friends for this very special occasion. And no, for the record I want it to be known that I did not pick this concert (over the one this afternoon at the more convenient but less intimate Church of the Holy Trinity on the Upper East Side) JUST because of the post-concert reception.
A festive yet spiritual mood was set right away with a totally engaging "Gabriel's Message", which immediately made everybody feel completely secure that the singers were in fine form indeed. This starting point in the Basque country kicked off a whirlwind international tour of traditional Christmas songs that stopped in The Netherlands for a discreetly joyful "King Jesus Hath a Garden", France by way of a cheerfully rustic "Shepherds in the Field Abiding", Germany with a sweetly romantic "Lo, How a Rose e'er Blooming", England courtesy of the happy drinking "Wassail Song", and The Wales via "Deck the Halls", whose annoyingly jolly "Fa la la la la la la la la" Cantori managed to make bearable thanks to what had to be a divine intervention.
Even works that I consider corny but inescapable US standards such as "I'll be Home for Christmas", "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and "Do You Hear What I Hear" came out smartly arranged, richly textured and altogether exceptionally pleasant. That being said, it did not hurt that they were kept blissfully short either.
One of the most exciting things about a Cantori concert is that you never know what they will think up next. And yesterday was no exception when, in the midst of all the Christmassy tunes, sprung up two esoteric and, in the words of Mark Shapiro, "non dopey", Hanukkah songs. Alice Dryden's "Banu Choshech Legaresh" (Here we came to expel the darkness) had a refreshing earthiness to it while "Ocho Kandelikas" (Eight candles), arranged by Cantori's very own Jonathan Breit, brought some - Dare I say "devilish" in the House of the Lord? I do! - fun to the celebration.
Other highlights included a personal favorite of mine in the beautifully rendered "Little Drummer Boy", an unusually elegant, all-male version of "Ave Maria" by Franz Biebl (Take that Schubert and Gounod) with groups of singers in the back and front of the church and conductor in the aisle, and two rollickingly entertaining excerpts from Poulenc's "The Story of Barbar" performed at the piano by Jason Wirth with Mark Shapiro reading (Because what would the holidays be without Babar, right?).
Naturally, no holiday concert would be complete without Gruber's immaculately peaceful "Silent Night". Yesterday evening, this perennial favorite turned into a sing along during which the capacity crowd did their best to sing verses 1 and 3 while Cantori effortlessly nailed verse 2, whose lyrics were wisely kept out of our programs. A nice communal touch before audience and artists got a chance to bond even further over food and drinks at the decidedly rocking post-concert reception. Happy Holidays!