Assistant Head of School for Academic Affairs and former member of the Army Field Band Jerry Beckman said, "'Frosty The Snowman' reminds me of my childhood and watching the television animation during the Holiday Season, and 'Mary Did You Know,' which reminds me of what Christmas is all about."
Percussionist and percussion teacher Andy Kruspe named five songs, two by The Chieftains, "O the Holly She Bears a Berry" and "The Boar's Head," two by the Mobile-based group, Mithril, "Winter's Day" and "The Wexford Carol" and "Cold Frosty Morning" by Tom Morley "The reason for these tracks is simple-these are all Celtic/Trad traditional tunes that I think sound grittier and more honest than a lot of the music you will hear at this time of year."
Jennifer Ragsdale, Dean of the 5th and 6th Grades, Band Director and Middle School Arts Department Chair, and music teacher Ann Goodrich both have Act of Congress in heavy rotation. "They are a group out of Birmingham who are the brink of making it really big," said Ms. Ragsdale. "They were in Huntsville this weekend and performed at the UAH Peace on Earth Concert (the same event at which Young Voices performed with Lee Greenwood last year). They have just released 'The Twelve Day of Christmas,' one of the songs they performed at the Peace on Earth Concert. "It’s amazing. Their renditions of 'O Holy Night' and 'Joy to the World' are exceptional as well."
Ms. Goodrich said, "'The Twelve Days of Christmas' by Act of Congress is my choice for this year. After hearing this live at the Peace on Earth concert it became an instant favorite. The creativity and originality put into such a traditional song truly makes it a treasure in any holiday music library."
"In the Bleak Midwinter" – Robert Shaw - "Why? Because Dr. Walters is right… Choirs rule at Christmas time…"
"The Wexford Carol" – Krauss, Yo-Yo Ma - "Because Yo-Yo Ma has tons of amazing collaborations with really talented people… The entire album, Songs of Joy & Peace, is fantastic."
"Lo How A Rose E’re Blooming" – Canadian Brass, "Because the Canadian Brass are easy to listen to and because they are a lot of fun to hang out with! I had a chance to work with past member Ronnie Romm and his son, Aaron (a student of mine at Vanderbilt). The current membership includes Chris Coletti, who got his start as principal trumpet player with the Huntsville Symphony Orchestra… small world."
To this list, Mr. Bernick also adds "Jolly Old Saint Nicholas," ("Not my favorite… but it’s my dad’s favorite,") and "White Christmas," "just for fun." (Hmmm... mystery artist, any guesses as to who it is?)
Upper School English teacher and musician Patrick Green likes "Do You Hear What I Hear?" "When I was in 4th grade, I was in my school choir and can remember so vividly learning this song and performing it for my family and at the local mall with the choir in Houston, Texas. I had never heard the song prior to that, and I just thought it was so beautiful. Of course, like everything, it is overplayed this time of year, but it never fails to bring me back to that first moment of beautiful musical discovery for me."
But, as we said at the start of this post, there's no Kenny G. on this list. "I am a sucker for holiday music," says Mr. Green, "if only to bring me back to my childhood, when things seemed simpler. I'm sentimental like that, which also explains why I have such a deep aversion to Mannheim Steamroller and its ilk. That, and anything by Kenny G. I worked many, many shifts in a restaurant during the holidays in 1990-91, and his holiday 'arrangements' played incessantly on the speakers. I loved the job, but the music, for whatever reason, does not connect me to the good things about it."
And there is certainly neither Kenny G. nor Mannheim Steamroller playing at the home of Communications Associate David Brown, whose undergraduate major was music, and who is on the board of the Huntsville Chamber Music Guild. Here are his favorites:
"There are tons of CDs that find their way onto my stereo system during the holiday season, but I’ll limit myself to recommending five regulars. None of these recordings are recent, but they are all classics that have never fallen out of the catalog in the years since they were issued. All are available on Amazon, and in many cases, you can sample individual tracks."
"The first three CDs feature the same performers, the Cambridge Singers and the City of London Sinfonia, led by the redoubtable conductor/arranger/composer John Rutter, who founded the Cambridge Singers as well as the record label that issued these recordings in the early to mid-90s, Collegium Records. Among their numerous Christmas recordings, they constitute a kind of legendary 'trilogy.' The choral singing is among the best ever committed to disc, the English being hard to beat at this sort of thing, and the arrangements are tasteful, direct, fresh, and respectful of both the music and listeners. You’ll not find any souped-up, pandering sentimentality here."
Christmas with the Cambridge Singers—a nice mix, with 21 tracks divided in half into “The joy of Christmas” (more celebratory in mood) and “The peace of Christmas” (more contemplative).
Christmas Day in the Morning—tends more exclusively toward the celebratory side, and with eight of its 23 tracks devoted to carols written by John Rutter himself. Also includes the “Fantasia on Christmas Carols” by Ralph Vaughan Williams.
Christmas Night: Carols of the Nativity—my favorite of the three, though probably the least 'versatile.' By that I only mean that it would not serve well as background for a roaring party or gift-opening gathering. Its character is more contemplative, but its range is extraordinary, from the 14th century to the 20th and from a variety of locales: England, France, Germany, Wales, Spain. A rare gem is an Italian carol (with English text here) first published in 1689. Also included is a hauntingly gorgeous performance of the Appalachian carol, 'I wonder as I wander,' with a baritone solo. The overall effect of this CD, for me, is uniquely mesmerizing and ethereal, and a refreshing mixture of the familiar and the surprising.
"My last two CD recommendations are not strictly seasonal, but have become a regular part of my holiday season," says Mr. Brown:
Handel’s Water Music (complete)—Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, Gerard Schwarz conducting, on the Delos label.
"I often turn to this recording, initially released as an LP in the early '80s, for festive holiday gatherings. The L.A. Chamber Orchestra was founded in the late 60s as an artistic outlet for the most gifted of the area’s phenomenal musicians, who primarily work in the city’s many movie and recording studios. At the time, Schwarz had turned to conducting after a successful career as a trumpet player, including a stint as the first chair trumpet of the New York Philharmonic. Just a few years later, he started his 25+ year tenure as the music director of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra."
"Unlike most more recent recordings, this is not a period instrument performance. The orchestra plays modern instruments, but the ensemble is chamber-sized and deployed astutely, with no anachronistic bloat. The chief and, in my experience, unique attraction of this performance lies in its exuberant abundance of ornamentation, which is, in fact, perfectly in line with Baroque period performance practice. Scores from the era often notated musical lines plainly, and players were expected to improvise flourishes and embellishments to 'ornament' them, especially in sections that were repeated. These players do that to a fare-thee-well, in a display of almost insouciant virtuosity that has often made me laugh out loud in sheer amazement. The musicians are obviously having a ball playing this familiar score, and their enthusiasm and commitment are irresistibly infectious. Years ago, I played this recording for an oboist friend of mine. Scarcely five minutes in, she said, 'Okay, how and where do I get this?' If you’re anything like me, once you’ve heard it, all other recordings of this music, even very good ones, will strike you as just a bit staid and unimaginative."
Richard Strauss: Four Last Songs—soprano Jessye Norman, the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Kurt Masur conducting, on the Philips label.
"This may be my least defensible recommendation, since there’s only one track that has become a holiday favorite of mine. And it’s not any of the 'Four Last Songs,' though I love them dearly. For the disc also includes six other of Strauss’s songs with orchestra, including a 'Wiegenlied' (Lullaby) that is heart-wrenchingly touching and that I find applicable to the Nativity. Somewhere along the way, during my public radio days, I started playing it on air during the Christmas season, and it always provoked calls from listeners wanting to know what it was. Some years, fellow staff members would burst into the master control studio asking, 'What IS that beautiful thing?'"
"The rest of the tracks are very fine, too. I have other recordings of the Four Last Songs I prefer, but Norman’s, in her mid-career prime in the early '80s, is certainly nothing to sneeze at. And the support provided by the Leipzig band is astonishingly sensitive, far more so than anything I ever heard Masur do in his later tenure as conductor of the New York Philharmonic. The entire recording is worth having, but that 'Wiegenlied' alone, for me, is worth the price of admission."
Head of School Jay Rainey combined philology with his love of music at last winter's Community Time, sending off the Upper School with two songs, "Toyland" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," both diagrammed and discussed here. The assembly concluded in a duet of the second song, as he accompanied soprano Sarah Harbaugh '15 on the piano, a reminder of the importance of music in a community. As with so much else in life, the music you listen to will stay with you for years to come. Choose well.