Christmas music through the centuries

From Bach to Berlin, holiday music abounds in Boulder

Ars Nova Singers

Tired yet of “Frosty,” “White Christmas” and “Jingle Bells”?

Boulder’s classical musicians have the answer for you: whole concerts of Christmas music that avoid the inescapable standards currently flooding the airwaves and suburban malls. No sleigh rides, roasting chestnuts or reindeer shouting with glee. Just classical music written over the centuries for the celebration of Christmas.

In the case of the Ars Nova Singers (7:30 p.m. on Dec. 15 in St. John’s Episcopal Church), “written over the centuries” is literally true. “In 27 years of Ars Nova holiday concerts,” director Tom Morgan says, “we have revived many unusual works of the distant past and presented literally ‘Ars Nova’ (new art) as well: music of living composers.”

This year’s “Midwinter’s Collage” concert offers “the austere beauty of medieval music; the flowing polyphony of the high Renaissance; a set of particularly American works that trace the history of our country; modern works from British composers; and some familiar carols in new and unusual arrangements,” Morgan says.

The medieval portion of the program reaches all the way back to the 12th century with music by the mystical Benedictine abbess Hildegard of Bingen, a cult-like figure who has a wide following within the New Age movement for her natural healing, among feminist scholars as one of the earliest known creative women, and among music lovers who just like her soaring, chant-like melodies.

Coursing on through the centuries, Ars Nova will perform a double-chorus setting of the Christmas hymn “In dulci jubilo” (In sweet joy, a tune known to many as “Good Christian Men, Rejoice”) by the underappreciated Renaissance composer Michael Praetorius. Among the American works will be a suite of Appalachian carols, “Star in the East,” featuring hammered dulcimer, played by Denver’s “Dulcimer Lady,” Lucille Reilly.

Hildegard and Praetorius show up on the program of another local ensemble, the Boulder Renaissance Consort of instruments and voices (7 p.m. on Dec. 15 at St. Thomas Episcopal in Denver). Turning up music sure to be unfamiliar to most concert-goers, they will perform pieces from the same medieval Bavarian manuscript that provided texts for the popular 20th-century choral work “Carmina Burana” (Songs from the Benediktbeuern monastery).

Meanwhile, on Dec. 15 the Boulder Chamber Orchestra is presenting “The Gift of Music,” a holiday program featuring purely orchestral music. Together with flutist Cobus du Toit, the BCO will perform concertos by Bach, Handel and Vivaldi at 7:30 p.m. at the First Congregational Church.

“Handel always reminds me of Christmas, because I’ve played Messiah so many times,” the orchestra’s director, Bahman Saless, says. “The concertos are going to be like a showcase of all of our talented string players. And I always think baroque music fits the season very well.”

Not to stray too far from the season, though, Saless and the orchestra will present a suite of carol arrangements by Leroy Anderson. Be assured, though, there are no reindeer or snowmen, or other hits from Hollywood. Instead, the suite includes the non-top-20 carols “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella” and the “Wassail song,” among others.

Saless and the BCO recognize that the holiday season does not end with the last concert before Christmas. Instead, like the Colorado Symphony and many other orchestras around the country, they will present a New Year’s Eve concert of Viennese polkas and waltzes (6:30 p.m. in the Lakewood Cultural Center, Lakewood). The program will feature “The Emperor Waltz,” “Tritsch-tratsch Polka,” and similar musical bon-bons by Johann Strauss, Jr.

“It’s a celebration of New Year’s Eve, Viennese style, with a twist,” Saless says. The twist is the inclusion of music from across central Europe, including a Czech overture, a Hungarian dance, and “all sorts of fun, crazy stuff,” Saless says.

There is more traditional holiday music aplenty as well. The Boulder Symphony (Dec. 14 and 15 at First Presbyterian) and the Longmont Symphony Orchestra (First United Methodist in Longmont) both partner with choirs to present annual holiday concerts.

And even if you’ve heard their carols dozens of times already, it is always rewarding to hear good music played live by good musicians.

Of course, many Coloradans are “dreaming of a White Christmas” this year — skiers and non-skiers alike. And they have their very own song: “Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!” It should be easy enough to find if you are so inclined.

But whatever your preference for seasonal music, be it Hildegard, Handel or Hollywood, may your holidays be filled with music!


Performance schedule

All performances in Boulder unless otherwise indicated.

Friday, Dec. 14

7 p.m., First Presbyterian Church Boulder Symphony and First Presbyterian choirs: “The Glory of Christmas”

7:30 p.m., Broomfield Auditorium, Broomfield Boulder Chamber Orchestra: “The Gift of Music”

7:30 p.m., St. John’s Episcopal Church Ars Nova Singers: “A Midwinter’s Collage”

Saturday, Dec. 15

3 & 7 p.m., First Presbyterian Church Boulder Symphony and First Presbyterian choirs: “The Glory of Christmas”

4 p.m., Macky Auditorium Canadian Brass “Canadian Brass Christmas”

7 p.m., St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Denver Boulder Renaissance Consort: “O Tannenbaum”

7:30 p.m., First Congregational Church Boulder Chamber Orchestra: “The Gift of Music”

Tuesday, Dec. 18 7:30 p.m., First United Methodist Church, Longmont Longmont Symphony Orchestra: “Candlelight Concert”