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Choirs And Carols: An NPR Christmas

A list of the musicians who've visited NPR's studios over the past few decades reads like a who's-who of classical music. Along the way, many of them have played and sung a few Christmas tunes. For the radio program Choirs and Carols: An NPR Christmas, we've gathered some memorable songs for the season from groups as far away as Latvia and Finland, as well as those closer to home from Pittsburgh to Oakland. You can hear the entire show, hosted by NPR's Lisa Simeone, by clicking the link at the top of this page.

 

 

The Artists on Choirs and Carols: An NPR Christmas

Anonymous 4

The four female vocalists who make up Anonymous 4 kick off the program with a well-known carol: "The Holly and the Ivy." But what is not well-known, says the group's Johanna Rose, are the origins of these two traditional holiday plants.

"There are many symbols involved in 'The Holly and the Ivy,' " Rose says. "There are a lot of medieval poems about holly and ivy, but the symbols actually originated in paganism, and were eventually taken over by the Christian church."

The idea of four women singing ancient music together came to Rose in the mid-1980s, after she participated in a medieval workshop set in a monastery. A group was formed in the summer of 1986 for a rehearsal, and it went so well that they designed their first program, Legends of St. Nicholas, which eventually became one of the group's most popular recordings.

Ever since, Anonymous 4 has been singing medieval and contemporary music around the world, as well as on television programs such as CBS Sunday Morning and A&E's Breakfast With the Arts. The group is currently touring in support of its latest project, The Cherry Tree, which revolves around the 13th-century miracle ballad of Joseph and Mary. A new recording is due in the fall of 2009.

Baltimore Consort

Celebrating its 29th season, and with more than a dozen recordings to its credit, the Baltimore-based ensemble The Baltimore Consort continues to thrive as one of America's most active early-music groups.

The group arrived at NPR's Studio 4A and immediately set about unpacking a colorful array of instruments. There were violas and recorders of various shapes and sizes, plus a lute, a cittern and a curvy wind instrument called a crumhorn. They also brought along a gemshorn, which looked like an ocarina made from a goat's horn.

The Baltimore Consort's latest recording, Gut, Wind and Wire, highlights the group's collection of instruments. The group has just recorded a new disc of Renaissance music from Spain, which will be available in the spring of 2009.

Kitka

The multihued harmonies, jagged rhythms and full-tilt singing of the group Kitka sounds as if it comes straight from Bulgaria. In fact, the eight women who make up the group are based in Oakland, Calif.

The word kitka means "bouquet" in Bulgarian, and the group specializes in Eastern European repertoire. For their NPR visit, Kitka director Shira Cion and the group put together a winter solstice program, which included the haunting and droning "Byla Cesta," a Moravian carol about a chance meeting on a path between St. Elizabeth and the Virgin Mary en route to hear vespers. They also sang an old South Russian-Ukrainian carol titled "Av Jerusalime." Cion says it's a traditional song about door-to-door carolers on Christmas morning.

"They sing their tune, and in return receive all sorts of treats in the form of baked goods, cookies, pies," Cion says. "And the carolers are very specific in this particular tune, so they say, 'We wish you the best of health; we ask for chocolate.' "

Kitka has been busy recording and touring. The group's latest CD, Sanctuary: A Cathedral Concert, features a variety of songs from Eastern European spiritual traditions, as well as guest appearances by the Bulgarian diva Tzvetanka Varimezova. The group is taking its vocal theater project, The Rusalka Cycle, on the road to Poland, Germany and Ukraine in the spring of 2009.

YL Men's Choir

What a huge sound these 24 Finnish men made after filing into the NPR studio.

In Finland, music is deeply ingrained in society. It's a natural part of daily culture — food, water, air, music — and the vocal tradition is especially strong. It seems nearly every Finn sings in a choir, or has sung in a choir at some point.

Conducted by Matti Hyokki, the choir sang a wide variety of music: folk songs, stirring patriotic music and sounds evocative of the windswept beauty of the Nordic landscape. They also picked out two Christmas songs: one called "High Are the Snowdrifts," by the man called the father of Finnish music, composer Jean Sibelius.

The Pittsburgh Symphony Brass

The Pittsburgh Symphony has a proud legacy going all the way back to 1896, and one of the strengths of the orchestra has been its rich, clear brass sound.

Six members of the orchestra, calling themselves The Pittsburgh Symphony Brass, drove down to the NPR studio, lugging not only their shiny tubas, trombones and trumpets, but also some heavy metal — a pair of tuned bells, weighing in at 500 pounds each. Timothy Adams, one of the Pittsburgh Symphony percussionists, was the official bell ringer. It all made for some colorful, full-spectrum sounds.

The ensemble played carols old and new, and arrangements ranging from the prayerful to the irreverent, and a couple with a jazzy bounce. The Pittsburgh Symphony Brass is led by the Grammy-winning trumpeter George Vosburgh. The group's new CD is titled A Song of Christmas.

Trio Mediaeval

It's that time of year when Christmas carols are popping up all over, but the holiday music that this trio of women singers brought along to perform in the studio was far removed from the usual fare heard in shopping malls and television commercials.

That's because the group — made up of Anna Maria Friman, Torunn Ostrem Ossum and Linn Andrea Fuglseth — is based in Norway, and the women took some of those Norwegian Christmas traditions with them.

There isn't a Santa Claus, exactly, in Norway. Instead, they have what are called nissen, which might be described as Christmas gnomes. There are several types, including Julenissen, which look something like Santa, and the more scruffy Fjosnisse (barn "nisse"), who may turn grumpy if the children forget to leave a bowl of porridge.

The trio chose very old tunes, such as "Ring Out Bells," and traditional carols wrapped in new arrangements, like "My Heart Is Ever Present." Whether singing in an old Norwegian dialect or in Latin, the ethereal sounds of Trio Mediaeval are as pure as a fresh coat of winter snow.

The group received something of an early Christmas present this year. On Dec. 2, the Grammy nominees were announced. On the list was Trio Mediaeval, nominated in the Best Chamber Music category for the recording titled Folk Songs.

American Boy Choir

The group is based at the American Boychoir School in Princeton, N.J. About 30 members — boys from grades 4 through 8 — filed into Studio 4A with their cute red sweaters. When they weren't chattering together, they did some gorgeous singing under the direction of Vincent Metallo. They chose a variety of old and new music, including a stunning arrangement of the classic "Silent Night" — or "Stille Nacht" — in the original German.

Riga Dom Cathedral Boys Choir

In the old part of the city of Riga — Latvia's capital — stands the beautiful 13th-century Doma Cathedral near the banks of the Daugava River. It dominates the skyline. Today, that church is the home of the Riga Dom Cathedral Boys Choir, a group that keeps the Latvian tradition of choral music alive, at home and abroad.

The group was virtually unknown in the West until 1989, when the Soviet Union loosened its reins on the Baltic States. The choir includes a few older boys, whose voices have dropped. One, named Ins, explained that singing is a way of life for the Latvian people.

"Choir singing is like national power," Ins says. "It's something that keeps Latvians together. And we do have big singing and dancing festivals in Latvia, which are held every five years, where choirs from all Latvia come together to sing one program at once. At the end, of course, they are singing together, folk songs."

One of the most lively tunes the group sang on its visit was a folk tune about a rooster, which ended with some cacophonous crowing. It also performed, in charmingly accented English, the old French carol "Whence Is That Goodly Fragrance Flowing."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Huizenga
Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.