Wow! Three of my favorite things in one headline: Christmas, Norway, and the St. Olaf Choir.
Who doesn’t love Christmas?
About half of my DNA came from Norwegian ancestry and I’m a little bit of a genealogy buff. A visit to Norway is one of the items on my bucket list.
I first wrote about my affinity for the St. Olaf Choir on this blog five years ago and you can read that entry here: http://smljax.blogspot.com/2009/02/americas-finest-choir-coming-february.html. My bucket list also includes hearing the St. Olaf Christmas concert in person someday.
In 1913 the collegiate choir made its first trip to Norway under the direction of F. Melius Christiansen, its founder and director. One hundred years later, in 2013, the choir returned under the direction of Anton Armstrong. Part of the tour included recording a Christmas concert at Nidaros Cathedral which was built in 1070. This concert also included songs by the Nidarosdomens Jentekor (Nidaros Cathedral Girls’ Choir). At the end of this post I’ll tell you how you can get a copy of this exquisite performance.
First, I thought I’d give a few highlights from the concert.
Climb to the Top of the Highest Mountain (Carolyn Jennings b. 1936)
I never watch a concert without paper and pen nearby so I can write down new pieces that catch my ear. This was the first one I wrote down. The text comes from Isaiah 40 and is closely associated with Advent. The pure singing of the choir of girls and the gentle melody as it’s passed back and forth between the vocal sections combine to create a soothing rendering of the ancient prophet’s voice. Before Epiphany 2013, I had discovered the piece in our own library at St. Mark’s! So we sang it as the musical offering in a service of Advent lessons and carols. We liked it so well; we’re singing it again for Christmas Eve.
O Come, All Ye Faithful
A distant angel choir, handbells, and a mighty organ – what a fantastic way to set up a congregational singing of THE Christmas Eve hymn. You won’t be able to resist singing (or at least humming along) any more than Kevin Kline was able to resist dancing to “I Will Survive” in the movie “In & Out.”
The Glory of the Father (Egil Hovland 1924-2013)
Hovland was a Norwegian composer who wrote in a variety of styles. Starting with open fifths and a text that is chanted more that it’s sung, the beginning is reminiscent of mysterious plainsong from a distant monastery. This gives way to a choral motet that brings the sounds of a cathedral choir to mind. The St. Olaf Choir performance is flawless. Our own Festival Choir sang this piece for Christmas Eve last year.
Night of Silence (Daniel Kantor b. 1960)
Kantor’s original arrangement is a much-loved standard by many church choirs. It opens with a contemporary sounding melody and a text that speaks to people who seek comfort:
Cold are the people, winter of life,
We tremble in shadows this cold endless night.
Frozen in the snow lie roses sleeping,
Flowers that will echo the sunrise.
Fire of hope is our only warmth;
Weary, its flame will be dying soon.
As a surprise, this melody is then paired with “Silent Night” in way that almost seems magical. John Fergusons arrangement adds some choral harmonies and a warm lushness that is very satisfying.
Jeg er så glad hver julekveld (Peder Knudsen 1819-1863)
This is THE Norwegian hymn for Christmas Eve. Our own Pastor Hanson has told of singing the opening stanza as a solo (in Norwegian!) when he was a young boy. This performance includes interludes on a Hardanger fiddle that give it a folk-song whimsy. This year, our Festival Choir will be singing Paul Christiansen’s arrangement of the tune.
Lo, How a Rose e’er Blooming/The Rose (arr. Craig Hella Johnson)
This piece confuses me. The pop song made popular by Bette Midler is paired with the hymn “Lo, How a Rose e’er Blooming.” The two songs work together okay, especially in this arrangement and with gorgeous singing – but they work musically. For me, the texts make no sense together. I kept waiting for some textual epiphany, but it never came for me. I have no doubt that there are people who will love this and will find it profound musically and textually.
O Day Full of Grace (arr. F. Melius Christiansen)
F. Melius lays it on thick here and in a very satisfying way. The classic hymn is sung slowly so that harmonies unfold in all of their lush glory before the choir breaks forth in joyous singing. I keep thinking it’s time to introduce this hymn to St. Mark’s. It is No. 627 in Evangelical Lutheran Worship.
This Christmas CD was an early Christmas present to and from myself. I’ve already listened to it several times. Get your own copy at this link: http://www.stolafrecords.com/store/pc/viewPrd.asp?idproduct=231
The concert will be aired on our local public television station on Friday, December 19th, at 10:00 p.m. Watch it then, or get it on your DVR. I recommend the DVR because I watched the full concert at least four times last year! Here is a link to WJCT’s schedule page. Put in the date and time for a full description of the concert. http://www.wjct.org/tv-schedule/
Top photo: The 2014-2015 choir from the college web site
Middle photo: Nidaros Cathedral from Wikipedia
Bottom photo: The CD cover