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Holiday Music: An Alternative Playlist

Album cover for John Adams "El Niño;" culled from the Nonesuch Records website.

In his November 30 blog post, entitled “The Trouble with the Familiar,” fellow Arts America writer Ken Williams lamented the extent to which our seemingly impenetrable focus on holiday music favorites blinds us to the merits of music that, for no lack of quality, is not as embedded in our listening traditions. Ken writes, “The quality of the work is not necessarily enough to save it,” a haunting reminder that seems to admonish that we the listeners risk losing the music we inadvertently ignore.

With this in mind, my thoughts turned to holiday/winter-themed music written by contemporary American composers. Such works seem inevitably crowded out by the compositions previously mentioned in our recent posts on this site, in danger of being relegated to niche-oriented “new music” concerts rather than receiving equal billing alongside the festive repertoire. It seems to me that this stems from a composition’s lack of “visibility” among the populace, or perhaps more accurately, “audibility,” for whatever reason.

The value of traditions comes not just from the continuation of meaningful (yet comfortable) rituals, but from the infinite possibilities inherent in creating new traditions, regenerating and perpetuating the cycle for successive generations. In this spirit, here are four contemporary classical works worth the time not only during the holiday season, but beyond:

Steve Reich’s Tehillim (1981)

This seminal work for four female voices and ensemble takes portions of the book of Psalms as its text. Rhythmically enigmatic, Tehillim features buoyant, interlocking vocal counterpoint –resulting in a kind of celestial shimmer.

John Adams’s El Niño (1999-2000)

This compelling Nativity oratorio for soprano, mezzo-soprano, bass-baritone, three countertenors, choruses and orchestra is distinctive for expanding its narrative sources to include apocryphal scripture, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Gabriela Mistral, Rubén Dario, the Wakefield Mystery Play, Martin Luther’s Christmas Sermon, and Rosario Castellanos, among others.

Album cover for David Lang's "The Little Match Girl Passion;" image culled from Harmonia Mundi website.

David Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion (2008)

This Pulitzer Prize-winning composition for four voices, chamber choir, and percussion places Hans Christian Andersen’s famous story “The Little Match Girl” within the structural context of J.S. Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion. The somber, intimate work combines jagged, crystalline melodic fragments with lush harmonies, in a way that is unsettling, yet life-affirming.

Nico Muhly’s “Senex puerum portabat—Hodie Christus Natus Est” (from the album A Good Understanding, 2010)

Inspired by composer William Byrd’s setting of the same text about the Savior’s virgin birth, Muhly’s contemporary Christmas carol adds the ubiquitous “Hodie” text, achieving both contemplation and frenetic wonder in an expert blend of chorus and brass.

Of course these suggestions by no means comprise an exhaustive list, but are meant to be part of an adventurous supplement to the season’s playlist. Happy holidays!