At least for us in the parts of the world where Christianity is a central part of our cultural heritage, a choral conductor will struggle to avoid seasonal concerts in December. Not that I feel any great need to avoid them: in many ways, Christmas concerts are my favourites. The audiences are excellent, both in numbers and in the way they live the music. The music is often a shade easier than the music the choir normally sings in concert, which certainly makes the life of a conductor less strenuous. Even the singers seem more relaxed. And on top of that, there is the feeling of closure – after these concerts it is holiday season!
All good then. Well, maybe not all. Programming a Christmas concert is not an easy feat. At least I want to be traditional enough to satisfy the needs of the audience and yet adventurous enough for my concerts to stand out a little amongst all the Christmas concerts. And this, in the end, boils down to programming.
There is no dearth of Christmas music, be it demanding new compositions or simple arrangements of carols. The problem is finding something that is really good, and finding it before your (local) colleagues do. Where do I find it and how?
What I do is keep my ears and eyes open all through the year. I listen to new Christmas CDs, read the catalogues of publishers – and follow the choirs I like on Youtube. Early this year (January, I believe!) I spent quite a lot of time listening to some good recordings of Christmas music on Spotify. Anything interesting I came across I placed in a playlist named according to the choir I thought they might be good for. Come August, I went through these lists and found that I could use a great deal of the music (most of which I had completely forgotten by that time). I also noticed that I had acquired much of the sheet music (single copies) early in the year, as well. Ergo: no panic.
One fascinating feature about a Christmas concert is that the audience has an emotional link to the music. Carols really do touch a chord in the heart’s of the people attending the concert. I have tried all sorts of programs from 17 short carols to no carols at all. I now feel it would be a little foolish not to include a sprinkling of well-known carols in the program. If you place a few carols at the top of the program, a few in the middle and a few really well-known ones at the end, the audience will be more than satisfied. I tend to include some more ambitious and varied seasonal music elsewhere in the program to personalise the concert (and not die of an overdose of sweetness).
The good news is that you do not need to sing all the best known choral carols in the most traditional arrangements. In fact, based on feedback, I would say that most patrons actually enjoy new arrangements of traditional carols. I tend to commission a couple of arrangements every year. It seldom costs and arm and a leg and the choir has something no else does!
Because December always comes quicker than you think and rehearsal time for Christmas concerts is fairly limited, I find planning in good time is crucial. If I have a rough sketch for a Christmas program in late August, things tend to work out. Christmas concerts are exceptional in the sense that you can freely re-use material from years gone by, which means you have little more room for maneuvre than with ‘normal’ concerts. That said, I try to plan early and improvise late.
In the end, my aim is to find good music and maybe push the envelope a little. A Renaissance motet or two, something a little more substantial (more like the music the choir sings out of this season) and something really lovely that the audience has not heard before, tend to make the program seem considered and well prepared. I also try to avoid running through the straightforward pieces too often and leave a lot of the details (dynamics, breathing, phrasing) open and to be decided on the spot. This often gives a feeling of freshness to these pieces.
As the sand in the time glass of 2017 runs out, I want to thank all of you who have read these blog posts. It has been a pleasure writing them. I will do my best to add to the blog in the New Year (suggestions welcome!). Until then, Merry Christmas / Happy holidays!