Last August PENTATONE decided that the summer would be the perfect time to be first out of the gate in the annual battle for market share among Christmas albums. Their sword-carrier, so to speak, definitely offered a novel approach with its title December Celebration: New Carols by Seven American Composers. Recording took place at Skywalker Studios in San Rafael, California; and it involved quite a few performers (and also some composers) based in the San Francisco Bay Area. The choir was Volti, a group of twenty professional singers founded by Artistic Director Robert Geary and dedicated to the discovery, creation, and performance of new vocal music. Members of the New Century Chamber Orchestra (NCCO) provided instrumental resources, along with Steven Bailey playing both piano and Hammond organ. The vocal soloists were soprano Lisa Delan and baritone Lester Lynch, and the conductor was NCCO Concertmaster Dawn Harms.
As regular readers know, PENTATONE lost the race to be the first out of the gate, since Cappella SF, a San Francisco chamber choir led by Artistic Director Ragnar Bohlin, who is also Director of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, came out with their recording on Delos, Light of Gold: Cappella SF Christmas, over a month earlier in July. However, there are few grounds on which to compare these two albums. Cappella SF chose to cover a broad span of music history and styles, while December Celebration is all about currently active composers. (One might, however, question the title, since it seems to count the joint effort of William Bolcom and Joan Morris as the work of a single composer!)
Nevertheless, the diversity on December Celebration as about a wide as that on Light of Gold. On the other hand it would be fair to say that sentiment runs pretty deep on both albums; and I happen to be one of those cynics who believes that the excess of “Christmas cheer” is one of the primary causes of the depression that many suffer during the month of December. The illusion that everyone else is having a good time often makes the individual feel even more miserable than usual.
In that respect I have to confess a strong personal preference for the contribution by Luna Pearl Woolf, “How Bright the Darkness.” The subtitle describes this piece as “A Winter Solstice Carol;” and it is a setting of a well-crafted poem written by Eleanor Wilner in 2004. The music definitely has the most interesting approach to instrumentation on the entire album, requiring a baritone solo, treble chorus, harp, percussion, and string orchestra. Woolf has mustered just the right combination of sonorities and thematic material that makes the perfect glove to fit Wilner’s poetic hand.
This music stands out not only for its secular stance but also because the composer has revealed through her effort more than a superficial understanding of the text she selected. Too many of the selections on this album sound as if the text is being merely declaimed, suggesting that the composer never took the necessary time both to read and to recite the text before taking on the task of setting it to music. The most notable exception to this modus operandi is Gordon Getty, but that is because he is setting his own texts. Opinions over Getty’s skills as a poet may differ (I shall keep mine to myself); but the album could definitely do more with that sense of skilled technique that he shares with Woolf in finding the right fit between words and music.
Getty also contributed a rather lush arrangement of “Silent Night,” which presents the text in English and French as well as German. This is definitely an innovative approach to what is probably the most venerable warhorse in the Christmas repertoire. However, those (like myself) who have heard a first-rate a cappella rendering of David Conte’s bitonal arrangement of this music are likely to accept no substitutes.