The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, along with their guest ensembles, the Morehouse College Glee Club and the Gwinnett Young Singers, performed three “Christmas with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra” concerts this past weekend in Symphony Hall. The majority of the iconic holiday program was led by the ASO’s director of choruses Norman Mackenzie, while the directors of the guest choruses — Morehouse’s David Morrow and Gwinnett’s Lynn Urda — conducted several works performed by their respective groups.
The program was performed twice on Saturday, and then again Sunday afternoon.
While the odds are greatly against Atlanta’s weather allowing for a “White Christmas” on December 25, it gave us a “White Christmas with the ASO” this past weekend at a level unanticipated by local and national meteorologists, dumping several inches of snow in Atlanta’s neighborhoods, 10 inches in Marietta, and as much as a foot in parts of north Georgia. What had originally been a conservative “winter weather advisory” on Friday morning became a full-fledged “winter storm warning” by early afternoon, with the precipitation not stopping until mid-morning on Saturday.
Nevertheless, the ASO persevered, not canceling any of the three nearly sold-out concerts. As the weather moved out of the city to go annoy states to the northeast and the 2 p.m. concert time arrived, the sky had cleared to a brilliant blue. The sunlight glistened off the thick coating of snow on lawns, hedges, trees and shaded pavement, and major in-town streets began to clear for traffic. While snow is usually coupled with ice and is typically a big headache for Atlanta, the combination of beautiful snow (sans a coating of ice underneath) and crisp, chilly air seemed to add a special kind of outdoor décor to the occasion.
Amid the Atlanta Symphony’s cornucopia of December holiday-themed concerts, “Christmas With the ASO” is the linchpin event, the oldest of them all, going back a half century to 1967, when it was created by the late Robert Shaw in the beginning of his long term as ASO music director.
Today, Mackenzie is the curator of that long-bearded legacy, an 80-minute, intermission-less potpourri of 32 short seasonal pieces carefully crafted into a large, arching four-part drama — a quasi-symphonic scheme of Mahlerian proportion. It’s a format that remains essentially the same, even if a few of the components may change year to year. Basically, it is an annual event which thrives on its familiarity as tradition, as the nearly sold-out status of all three concerts attested.
Part One, entitled “Prophecy and Advent,” opened with Alice Parker’s arrangement of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” its slow improvisatory chiming of pitched percussion and celesta evoking the mood of a magical wintry night. The chorus then entered with the haunting modal tune, breaking into joyous celebration at the words, “Rejoice! Rejoice!” At its conclusion, a quick segue into “And the Glory of the Lord” from Handel’s “Messiah.” An unusual inclusion in the set came next, the “Praeludium” from Beethoven’s “Missa solemnis,” which, while hard to relate to Advent or Christmas on its own, worked astonishingly well in its slot ahead of Poulenc’s ebulliently French “Gloria in excelsis.” The segment closed with the first of only two audience sing-along carols, “The First Nowell,” as arranged by Sir David Willcocks.
Part Two, “The Stable,” was the longest, encompassing half of the concert’s total number of selections — too many to mention all in this review, but among them: the opening number, “Hodie, Christus natus est,” featured the Gwinnett Young Singers and the women of the ASO Chorus, with the Young Singers alone singing the subsequent “Wolcum Yole” – both from Benjamin Britten’s “A Ceremony of Carols” and accompanied by ASO principal harpist Elisabeth Remy Johnson.
The Morehouse Glee Club also had its standalone pieces, which included the spiritual “All ‘round de Glory Manger,” as arranged by Willis Laurence James and Leonard de Paur. The group also sang a perennial Christmas favorite, “Betelehemu,” sung in the pluricentric Yorùbá language and incorporating emphatic drumming, rhythmic steps and clapping by the singing choristers. Written by Morehouse’s choir director of the time, Wendell P. Whalum, it is based on a Nigerian Christmas carol brought to him in the 1950s by Michael Babatunde Olatunji, an African student at Morehouse on a Rotary scholarship. It persists as one of the genuine high points in the annual ASO program, never failing to excite the audience.
Concertmaster David Coucheron was violin soloist for two movements of the “Winter” concerto from Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” — the virtuosic “Allegro non molto,” which brought forth enthusiastic applause at its end, and the delicate, thoughtful “Largo.”
Most engaging in this part of the concert was a world premiere, “See, Amid the Winter’s Snow,” composed by the ASO’s own Michael Kurth. Kurth gave the old 19th-century English carol text by Edward Caswall an entirely new musical setting, an attractive, seemingly straightforward triple-meter tune, underscored by an orchestral accompaniment that more than hinted at Caribbean flavors in its joyous rhythmic undercurrent.
Part Three, “Around the Christmas Tree,” contained festive orchestral excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s ballet, The Nutcracker — including the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies” with its famous celesta solo, played by ASO keyboardist Peter Marshall — and several choral-orchestral carol arrangements from Robert Russell Bennett’s collection of suites, “The Many Moods of Christmas.”
The relatively brief Part Four, “Adoration,” opened with the lovely Catalan carol “El Cant dels Ocells,” in an orchestral arrangement by legendary cellist Pau Casals, its lyrically pensive cello solo performed by ASO principal cellist Christopher Rex. The mood turned darker with the 16th-century lullaby “Coventry Carol,” which references the Slaughter of the Innocents by King Herod. That was followed by the evening’s penultimate piece, “The Shepherds’ Farewell to the Holy Family” by Hector Berlioz, a wonderfully chromatic, totally emotive piece, a lovely lyrical prayer for the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt.
For the concert’s finale, the entire body of performers and audience joined in on “Adeste Fideles” (“O Come, All Ye Faithful”) to close the concert, giving its invitational message a fresh perspective as the audience prepared to exit the concert and reemerge into the world at large.