Xmas Xrap

December is not, for most orchestra musicians, the most wonderful time of the year. For many of us, December involves a kind of musical Groundhog Day – endless performances of Nutcracker or Hansel and Gretel – for the lucky ones, and a Purgatory of bad arrangements of Christmas carols and holiday dreck for everyone else.

Our Purgatory started tonight with our Holiday Pops. Fortunately the arrangements are actually quite good, and we’re only doing it three times. The conductor is Jeff Tyzik, principal Pops conductor with the Rochester Philharmonic, who also doubles as trumpet soloist and arranger. For the most part, the arrangements (almost all by him, with a few by the great Tommy Newsom) are good enough to distract my attention from the underlying material (The Little Drummer Boy, a tune I loathe, is dressed up by Tyzik as Bolero – a very clever solution). Unfortunately, Tyzik didn’t do the arrangement of The Carol of the Pogrom Bells, which is a piece I hate so much that, if I had a time machine, I would go back and shoot the composer before he had written it.

But I’m told we have sold out all three concerts, so I’m not complaining. Our chorus is involved in about half the program, and they sound wonderful as usual. Add in the two adorable children as string soloists in Gesu Bambino, and we have a real crowd-pleaser.

If we had our own hall, we’d probably be doing this program for weeks, like Indianapolis. Not doing so is the only good part about not having our own hall. But that doesn’t mean we’re off the hook; after this weekend, we descend into the realm of bad arrangements of way too familiar tunes done with a cut-down orchestra conducted by an assistant conductor for runout audiences.

It would probably help if I liked Christmas carols. Except for one, I don’t. That one is Silent Night, and I’m not sure why it’s an exception to my miscarolthropy. It is a beautiful tune -very Austrian – and it was written during what was a golden period in musical history, which may have something to do with its quality as music. It also possesses perhaps the most wonderful back-story in musical history.  Even the history of its introduction to the US is poignant (apparently its first performance on this side of the Atlantic was in the cemetery of Trinity Church, which became famous due to its proximity to the World Trade Center and the fact that it miraculously survived the 9/11 attacks.)

For years, when I thought of the first time Silent Night was sung, I had a mental image of a little church in the Tyrolean Alps, surrounded by snowy woods and filled with yodeling parishioners. The church for which it was written was actually on the banks of the Salzach River, not far from Salzburg, and the parishioners were mostly unemployed boat builders and teamsters (unemployed due to the collapse of the local salt trade following the Napoleonic wars, which had just ended). The consequent distress  and dislocation somehow enters into Silent Night in a way that makes it the perfect carol for a holiday that is – like the winter solstice into which it has merged – all about finding a tiny light in a very dark world.

Silent Night always gets to me. I just wish I didn’t have to play bad arrangements of it (although Tyzik’s is really quite nice). A choir accompanied by a guitar – which, of course, was the original setting, due to the church’s organ being broken (and likely not fixed because of reduced contributions by parishioners in dire straights) sounds absolutely perfect to me. Timely as well as timeless.


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