Christmas Music Traditions

It’s winter, Christmas is coming, and music again abounds. For many people, the Sounds of the Season on CBC, the “classical music of Christmas” on FM 96.3, and other traditional musical events mark the beginning of the holiday season. This week, I joined friends at two such events: the Toronto Star Christmas Carol Concert in support of their Santa Claus Fund, and the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir Festival of Carols.

This was the 36th year of the Star Carol Concert, held at the beautiful St. Paul’s Church on Bloor Street, the largest Anglican church in Toronto. The sanctuary of St. Paul’s was designed by Edward James Lennox, the architect of the Old City Hall and Casa Loma, and opened in 1913. Four thousand people filled the church last Saturday afternoon, at two successive concerts, to join six church choirs and two children’s choirs from across the GTA, the Canadian Staff Band of the Salvation Army, and Canon Dr. Giles Bryant of Peterborough, singing the traditional songs of Christmas. With the organ and the band playing, Dr. Bryant leading, and a crowd of 2,000 filling every pew, spirits soar with the music. Dr. Bryant, who resembles Santa Claus, is renowned for his wit and his capacity to cajole the crowd to give generously to the cause: Christmas gift boxes for 45,000 children living in poverty in Toronto, Mississauga, Brampton, Ajax and Pickering. As a fundraiser, and as a harbinger of the Christmas season, the concert is a proven success.

The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir has existed for 120 years and is considered one of Canada’s leading choirs. Directed since 1997 by Noel Edison, the choir is composed of over 100 volunteer choristers and 20 professional singers who are the Elora Festival Singers. They were joined in this concert at Yorkminster Park Baptist Church on Yonge Street by the volunteer 30-piece Canadian Staff Band, under John Lam. The brass band was sophisticated, smooth and amazingly sensitive, simulating the sounds of the season in many of their pieces, a delight for those of us unfamiliar with the range of expression an experienced brass band can project. The choir lived up to all expectations, singing a repertoire of beloved Christmas music with descants and arrangements that were unique, modern and demanding. Their renditions of Eric Whitacre’s modern Lux Aurumque and of Healey Willan’s Hodie, Christus natus est, sung by the choir lined up along the aisles of the church from front to back, were particularly compelling, taking full advantage of the acoustics of the venue.

This concert was streamed live on the internet and has been archived for later viewing. This new initiative by the choir is good for them and good for us. They expand their audience; we get to hear concerts we may have missed. As the CBC no longer broadcasts live concerts, and has largely withdrawn from support of the Canadian classical music scene, maybe this is the wave of the future.

Undoubtedly, there are Christmas concerts and carol services in every town and city across the country. Whether one is a practicing Christian or not, this music is one of the treasures of our Western Christian tradition. A good choir, an organ and a brass band, singing and playing the music of our cultural heritage with verve and panache is a heart-warming and uplifting experience. To join in that singing with a community of others is one of the joys of the season. Long may this tradition continue.

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3 comments

  1. Beth

    I attended a concert with Marion last night – so if you are thinking she is at concerts all of the time, you may be right! We heard the Toronto Consort perform The Little Barley-Corne – Yuletide Revels from the Renaissance (Dec. 12-14).
    The players played and sang so well together – it was obvious they enjoy performing as much as we enjoyed hearing them. The high points for me were Ben Grossman playing the hurdy-gurdy and guest, David Greenberg from Halifax who is a baroque violinist and a fiddler in the Cape Breton style. When David played Cape Breton fiddle, all of the feet on stage were pumping – and so were ours! I have been listening to David Greenberg on Youtube all day today.
    Barley-Corne is a delightful holiday performance. It’s on again tonight at Trinity St-Pauls and there is a matinee on Sunday afternoon. Catch it if you can: 416-964-6337 for tickets.

  2. Marlene

    There is no doubt about it: Christianity spawned great music, as well as continuing important social justice activities. The two come together in what was my father’s favourite carol, Good King Wenceslas. A friend and I heard this, among a wide range of Christmas music, at a very early (November) concert at the First Unitarian Congregation of Ottawa by Pierre Massie’s a capella Stairwell Carollers (http://www.stairwellcarollers.com/ ), in support of the Unitarian Service Committee (now known as USC – http://usc-canada.org/). Last night, Dan and I enjoyed First U’s own Christmas concert and enjoyed renditions by 3 of its choirs, an Ottawa University string quintet, 2 pianists, and a flautist, under the direction of its music director, Jacob Caines. First Unitarian’s worship hall is the venue (http://www.firstunitarianottawa.ca/our-campus.html ) for many Ottawa concerts, as well as its Sunday services, rites of passage and public interest lectures.

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