Sunday, December 20, 2009

A Candlelight Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at South Church, New Britain

The fresh snow outside my window this morning is a lovely backdrop to the bright birds at our feeder: blue jays, cardinals, white-throated sparrows, and woodpeckers. How lucky that the snow has stopped early enough so that the roads can be cleared in time for the annual Candlelight Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at 4:00 p.m., at South Church in New Britain, which will take place as planned.

The South Church Festival is modeled on the Festival given at King's College Chapel in Cambridge, England, first sung in 1918. Like the King’s College Festival, the South Church event features scripture readings of the Christmas story, congregational carol singing, and anthems for the season sung by the wonderful South Church Chancel Choir (in which I serve as section leader). The congregation is invited to sing eight carols and hymns, including the favorite “Once in David’s Royal City,” “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” “O Come All Ye Faithful,” and “On This Day Earth Shall Ring.” A free-will donation will be received which will support the Festival and benefit the South Church Survival Fund. A reception follows in Cooper Hall.

To tempt you, here is the list of anthems to be sung by the Chancel Choir:

William Mathias – Sir Christèmas
Hubert Bird – Adam Lay y-Bounden
Philip Ledger – A Spotless Rose
John Rutter – Ave Maria
Bryan Kelly – Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis
Colin Mawby – How Far Is It to Bethlehem
Ken Burton – The Virgin Mary Had a Baby Boy
Healey Willan – The Three Kings
John Gardner –A Christmas Hymn

Last week, I offered my impressions of three of the carols (read it HERE). Here are my thoughts on the others we’ll sing:

John Rutter – Ave Maria – One might not expect to hear a setting of Ave Maria in a Protestant service, but this text is an adaptation of St. Luke’s angelic salutation, and does not include the venerative section of the Catholic Ave Maria. Rutter’s gently rocking 5/8 setting (like a "stretch two") reminds us that this text salutes Mary as expectant mother. The solo soprano voice that rises unexpectedly in the coda is a brilliant touch, focusing our thoughts on the single, and singular, person of Mary.

Bryan Kelly – Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis – This setting of the exultant Magnificat text is truly joyous, with exuberant rhythms and some the sort of dissonances that make you smile as you lean into them. This music has been my “tune-be-gone” for much of the week.

Colin Mawby – How Far Is It to Bethlehem – In this gentle, undulating setting, one can almost see the date palms swaying in the evening breeze and feel the rolling gait of camels as they cross the sands to Bethlehem. The 5/4 meter is what I call a “stretch 4” – it feels like an elongation of a 4/4 meter rather than a “five” – and it’s in that long fourth beat that I feel the camel’s gait through the shifting sand.

Ken Burton – The Virgin Mary Had a Baby Boy – Caribbean rhythms infuse this setting of a traditional West Indian Carol by British composer Ken Burton (of Jamaican heritage). It seems that Burton’s precise British style brings crispness to the swinging syncopations.

Healey Willan – The Three Kings – The more of Willan’s music I sing, the more I admire it. Superb craft and a deep sympathy for the texts combine to produce works of unparalleled beauty and meaning. You really have to come to the Festival just to hear this setting of Housman’s poem The Three Kings, especially the final awe-struck measures.

John Gardner – A Christmas Hymn – It took me several weeks to embrace Gardner’s 1971 setting of Jesu, redemptor omnium, an ancient hymn for Vespers on Christmas Day. Despite the beautiful melodies and utterly lush harmonies, this music didn’t really settle in my heart and mind until just a few days ago. Perhaps the attention required of the singer – the score is fairly complex, with shifting voicings and macaronic texts that are first here, then there – was distracting to me. I think this anthem might be more fulfilling to hear than to sing. Come hear it, and let me know what you think. It is undeniably wonderful (that is, full of wonder).

One of the things I love about the Festival of Lessons and Carols at South Church is the opportunity to hear so much of the marvelous Gress-Miles organ in all its magnificent glory. Organist David Westfall has designed distinctive, beautiful registrations for the anthems, hymns, and carols, introducing a brilliant range of colors and sonorities to the service. The Festival opens with an organ prelude, with David playing Two Carol Settings by Frank Speller and James Woodman’s Partitia on Es ist ein Ros’ Entsprungen. David will close the program with one of his amazing organ improvisations. Marvelous!

See you at 4:00 today at historic South Church in downtown New Britain.

Oh, and don’t forget the wonderful reception following the Festival, in Cooper Hall at South Church.

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The Music Series at South Church presents
A Candlelight Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols
Sunday, December 20, 2009 at 4:00 p.m.
South Church
90 Main Street, New Britain, Connecticut
A free-will donation will be received which will support the Festival and benefit the South Church Survival Fund.
A reception follows in Cooper Hall.

1 comment:

  1. We sang Healy Willan's "Hodie Christus Natus Est" at church on the 20th. I too like his music.


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