It's that time of year, when the world becomes a crazy place of "Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer," Falalalas and "Figgy Pudding." Now we do greatly appreciate holiday music, the kitschier the better. Bring on the Dolly Parton, Mariah Carey and Glee....yeah baby! I love all of that. Especially the Dolly Parton and Mariah Carey albums.
However, sometimes your brain just needs a break. You want to listen to real music. But, one major problem remains. The vast majority of "classical" versions of Christmas music is far worse than the twangiest of twangy arrangements. It's so bad that if Grandma didn't get run over by a reindeer this year, her brain would probably just explode from the bad arranging.
Lucky you, we have some solutions!
Look Local. There are many wonderful choirs in Utah. In my not so humble opinion, the two best, by far, are Utah Chamber Artists and the Choir at the Cathedral of the Madeleine. Innovative music selection meets absolutely heavenly, perfect sound. No corny-ness on these programs. Now, UCA has already performed its Christmas concert of the year, but you can enjoy their music in a CD player near you. They have two Christmas albums: Joyous Day! and Welcome All Wonders. Joyous Day! is more recent and is itself wonderful, but I recently purchased Welcome All Wonders, and it is simply blowing my mind. The first six tracks are a set of pieces by J.A.C. Redford. Beautiful music that is also interesting-- a rare find. There is even an arrangement of "O Come O Come Emmanuel" by Dr. Thomas Durham that is simply awesome. And he's my former teacher, double win. You can purchase both CDs through paypal via UCA's website or download them directly from iTunes or Amazon. Both of the digital download services have another album of Christmas works all by J.A.C. Redford called "Eternity Shut in a Span." You can also purchase a number of Utah Chamber Artist CDs locally at Utah Artist Hands, which is a wonderful place to get those last few Christmas gifts.
Re-stock your CD/mp3 Collection
Remember that ancient device -- the CD player? It's so 1999, but you seriously need to get some good classical music in your holiday rotation. None of those crap arrangements. If you're old enough to own a turntable, then you're in luck because you're bound to find more than a few awesome albums at your local thrift store. But for those without such a blessing, may I make a few suggestions. Most of these are available on CD or via download, pretty much anywhere.
I recently have become obsessed with Nimbus Records' Christmas Organ Music, which is performed by Kevin Bowyer. There are pieces by Liszt, Bach, Handel, Guilmant, Rutter (ok maybe an ugh there, but you'll survive it, I promise), and even Herbert Sumsion. It's excellent stuff, wonderfully voiced. There will even be pieces that you probably haven't heard. The only skippable piece is no. 5, "Walkin' in the Air" from "The Snowman."
Bach Christmas Cantatas. Also, the Bach Christmas Oratorio. Bach wrote like a gazillion Christmas cantatas. OK, maybe of his 224 cantatas just a few dozen are holiday-centric. But that's definitely enough to shake the Christmas song blues. May I recommend the John Eliott Gardner recordings. I own them and love them. They are part of his millennium project of recording all of Bach's music.
The Carol Album: Seven Centuries of Christmas Music performed by the Taverner Consort, Choir & Players and conducted by Andrew Parrott. Before I discuss the album, a note: it's period, which is both a major strength and weakness for this album. Period, for the non music nerds out there, is our 21st century interpretation of how music was supposed to be sung in its Jurassic Era aka 1480 and thereabouts. Since none of us own a magical time travel device that enables us to actually hear how music sounded in the Middle Ages or Early Baroque period, "period" is mostly a bunch of made up stuff. Some of it comes of glorious, some of it hokey. Such is this album. Moments are brilliant, truly brilliant, and then there are times when their bizarre pronunciation drives you bananas. Never fear, though, because 90 perecnt of this album is fantastic. I particularly love the "Coventry Carol."
For the love of everything Holy, do yourself a favor and stay away from the ultra hokey Mannheim Steamroller, Nutcracker and Canadian Brass. There are a few notably good arrangements and albums by Canadian Brass, but it's hit or miss, so do it at your own risk. There are a multiplicity of reasons I recommend staying away from Mannheim Steamroller, but perhaps the greatest is the pirating of their name from the Mozart-era technique of the Mannheim Crescendo (a gradual rise in volume driven primarily via orchestration or how the music is written for each instrument). Also stay away from most classical compilations. There are a few gems out there, and if you need help selecting one, send your options to your nearest music nerd. We'll help you out. Promise. We're cool like that. I don't think I need to list any reasons for staying away from Nutcracker. Self explanatory.
Now we can't all be classical elitists 100 percent of the time. Here are two non-classical holiday albums that should be on all playlists. Ella Fitzgerald's Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas is so great. SO GREAT THAT I HAVE TO WRITE IN ALL CAPS SO YOU GET HOW AWESOME IT IS. I even cried the first time I heard "The Secret of Christmas." The second album that is a must is Bob Dylan's Christmas in the Heart released in 2009. It's so bizarre, and yet, simply genius. I can't tell if he's being ironically cool in this album, which is probably just far too hipster for the coolest dude of all time, or is truly sincere is this random menage of Christmas favorites with bits even sung in Latin. Just do yourself a favor and buy Christmas Island right now. Maybe this entire album was made under the influence, maybe it's all just unbelievably brilliant. I have no idea. I only know this music nerd can't get enough of it.
Lastly but not least, here's some non-holiday music coming up in SLC to look forward to in January:
Utah Symphony performs Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5, Jan. 5 - 7. And you get to hear a 17 year old play the Tchaik 1 Piano Concerto. Risky maybe, but what I've heard of young Conrad Tao is that he'll knock your socks off. And, you can never go wrong with Shostakovich. You can even enjoy the performance with Utah Symphony's Cadenza group (for the 55+) on Jan. 6.
Pacifica Quartet at the Chamber Music Society of Salt Lake City, Jan. 18. Playing Shostakovich, Myaskovsky, and Beethoven, this concert is going to rock.
Utah Crosstalk. This is a series of concerts featuring electronic music by Brigham Young University and University of Utah students and faculty that is presented at both BYU and the U. The U's concert was a few weeks ago, but you can hear it again at BYU on January 26th in the Madsen Recital Hall. It'll stretch your idea of what music can be.
NOVA Chamber Music Series, Jan. 22 at 3 p.m. at the Libby Gardner Concert Hall on the University of Utah's campus. NOVA is comprised of musicians mostly from Utah Symphony and is organized primarily by Jason Hardink, who is the Symphony's principal keyboardist. This concert is really a no-miss. Ives, Boulez, Ravel, Eckhardt, and a newly commissioned work by Dr. Steve Roens who is a fantastic composer at the University of Utah. Every new music fan should be there, and if you don't know anything about New Music or think you hate it, come check this out.
Crystal Otterstrom-Young is administrative director of Utah Cultural Alliance, composer for Salty Cricket Composers Collective and arts contributor to Salt Lake magazine.