I once heard someone say, “When you listen to the radio, you don’t want to hear one piece of music in this style, then another that’s completely different, and on and on…do you?” Why yes. As a matter of fact, that’s exactly what I want. It’s not that I don’t love big categories of music, it’s just that I believe every piece of music benefits from contrast. Rather like putting an antique next to Eames. Both pieces benefit.
It’s that “shopping technique,” if you will, that helps to form this morning – this Christmas Festival. I admit I’m constantly in the market for a musical gem, that piece of auditory art that I believe can help our journey from Advent to Christmas to be most meaningful. I also believe that the smallest bit of insight into a particular piece can let the listener understand and appreciate what they hear, exponentially. I’d like to share some of those insights with you here.
Our festival begins with a bang by fully using every instrument in the room, thanks to Camille Saint-Saens and his Organ Symphony. It’s impossible not to feel awed at the scope of this mighty music – a fitting way to begin the morning. It’s my hope that you will feel swept up in praise and thanksgiving, then fully engage as we sing carols together this morning, two of which are orchestrated by Sterling Procter, a fine Dallas-based horn player, and orchestrator – a real find.
Even though the Sanctus comes from Guiseppe Verdi’s Requiem, clearly not a Christmas work, the picture it paints is one of the countless angels singing, “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of all the hosts! Hosanna in the highest! Heaven and earth are full of God’s glory!” Sound familiar?
Our friend Howard Goodall contributes “Romance of the Epiphany,” and I have to say, its Spanish rhythms and catchy phrases have provided the choir’s “earworm” this fall. My favorite phrase is, “They are playing little trumpets, their sound rejoices me!”
I love to help paint the scripture and bring it to life using music as an underlay or soundtrack, and this year’s choice is a new favorite of mine, introduced to me by our good friend, Molly Mayfield, who is playing in the orchestra. I deliberately didn’t list the title – only the tempo marking, because I didn’t want the origin of the music to distract from the scripture itself. (A Starbucks card for the first person who identifies it to me after the service)
Eriks Esenvalds’ “Stars” might be the most intriguing thing you will hear today. Sometimes the main players (in this case, the star) of the Christmas story become invisible to us, merely from repetition, not unlike a painting we see every day. But rather than sing about THE star, we will sing about ALL the stars – the billions of siblings to the one blazing light that led the first worshippers to Bethlehem. The accompanists for this music are singing bowls and singing bells, and just like rubbing your finger around the rim of a wine glass, these instruments are played with sueded sticks, and the sound is (fittingly) otherworldly, and may be uncomfortable at first, until you realize that the composer is showing us what he interprets as “music of the spheres.”
Brad Blunt is our soloist for another unusual selection for the festival. The Maury Yeston musical, “In the Beginning,” takes place in Old Testament times, and at one point in the story, the character, Avi, teaches his son to talk. Since the moment I first heard the song, it made me consider this: Joseph and Mary taught Jesus to speak, just as our parents taught us, and it’s that notion that has caused me to include it. The most touching line of all is near the end when Avi says, “We call it ‘love,’ my son, say ‘love.’ So hard to say, my son, it gets harder.” Placed in the context of the gospel story, it takes on an even more powerful meaning.
The choir closes the morning with a piece I’ve held back for years until just the right singers were present. Eric Banks’ “To Hear the Angels Sing” is a stunning representation of earth and heavenly beings singing together. Credo plays the part of the heavenly host, while the Chancel Choir sings what the earth sings – “It came upon the midnight clear…” I won’t give away the ending, but just imagine the night sky on the first Christmas, filled for a time with countless, countless voices, then emptying itself.
In a world that seems to be more fragmented each day, my prayer for this morning is that the music binds us up, placing us exactly where we need to be, moving from anticipation and preparation to celebration and adoration.
“E’en so, Lord Jesus, quickly come.”