A Chanticleer Christmas

Chanticleer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Thursday, December 4.

Attending Chanticleer’s annual Christmas concert quickly has become the one holiday tradition that Sean and I faithfully observe, just the two of us. We love it, but for a fleeting moment this year, I wondered whether we should go. The tickets are a big splurge for us, more than twice what I usually pay for other events, and the program is fairly similar year to year. Is it really rational to keep spending all that money to hear again the Gregorian chant processional and the Willcocks carol arrangements and the Jennings spiritual medley and the Biebl Ave Maria? Perhaps we should do something else instead, something new.

But that was just a fleeting moment of doubt because there is a very good reason that Chanticleer’s annual Christmas concert became our one special holiday tradition in the first place. Aside from time with family, music is what we both love most about the celebration of Christmas. The familiar melodies, hauntingly sung, make me feel like a child again, in the best sense, safe and warm and loved and special.

I’ve been a traditional Christmas music junkie since I very little, and I participated in Lessons and Carols services and Christmas concerts for more than two decades, as a chorister and a pianist and an organist, so even relatively obscure carols fill me with a warm sense of nostalgia. I realize that “Divinum Mysterium,” based on an eleventh-century Sanctus trope, won’t do much for everyone, but that gorgeously simple tune brings tears to my eyes. Similarly, David Willcocks’s matchless hymn arrangements are Christmas for me. I know every note, every chord progression. I could sing the descants and then play the bass lines with my feet while blindfolded. They’re heart-stoppingly beautiful, and they bring back such happy memories.

Of course, in addition to the familiar pieces, Chanticleer always provides some surprises. This year, the highlight was John Tavener’s “Village Wedding,” not really a Christmas composition but close enough because of the refrain: “O Isaiah, dance for joy, for the Virgin is with child.” I knew the piece from the choir’s album Colors of Love (my favorite), but hearing the work performed live was a treat. The texture varies dramatically—solos on pedal tones, octave unisons, tight chromatic harmonies, polyphonic movement—and creates a wistful, otherworldly air. You can close your eyes and imagine you smell the incense from the Orthodox ceremony.

The Tavener performance was lovely, but I’m glad they ended, as I believe they always do, with Biebl’s Ave Maria, the trio against the rest of the choir, all building to a luminous, reverent climax. Give me that and two tickets to Winter Park, Florida, and that’s all I need to be happy this Christmas.