Making a ‘List

Making a ‘List

It’s that time of year when carolers sing and jingle bells ring and it’s impossible to shop without hearing holiday tunes both great and grating. So we asked five New Haven conductors to help us create a holiday playlist, turning up tunes from the familiar to the obscure, including one surprise piece that came up twice.

New Haven Symphony Orchestra principal pops conductor Chelsea Tipton suggests a new listen to an old holiday standard, Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker Suite. Like many, Tipton has a sentimental attachment to this classic. “Both my parents are music teachers… so I have nostalgic memories of growing up with that music,” he says. The Nutcracker was also the first ballet he conducted, back in 2000. Many people recognize the tunes from the ballet’s second act—“Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy” and the Russian dance (“Trepak”), for example—because they get frequent air time during the holidays. But as an adult, Tipton discovered “the other side of the record,” the music from the first act, which you’re likely to hear live only if you go to the ballet. It’s “sophisticated, difficult to play,” with “great melodies and themes,” Tipton says.

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The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven

Audiences tend to underestimate the difficulty of Nutcracker because parts of it have become so familiar, Tipton says. “It sounds fun and holiday spirit and, yeah, it’s The Nutcracker! It’s fun stuff! it’s really hard music to play.” Though the suite isn’t on this year’s program, Tipton will be conducting the orchestra, with guest singers Heritage Chorale of New Haven and an audience sing-along, in NHSO’s Holiday Extravaganza on December 19.

Over at Elm City Girls’ Choir, conductor Rebecca Rosenbaum has her mind on a sacred holiday piece, which her group will be performing at its annual holiday show on December 13. Composed by Nicola Porpora in 1741, Mary’s Magnificat calls for two soprano and two alto parts—just the right combination for Elm City’s singers. Porpora’s musicians were girls from Venetian orphanages who were trained to be musical prodigies, Rosenbaum says, with the singers also playing the orchestral parts. “It’s such an anomaly to encounter pieces from that time period, especially sacred pieces,” composed specifically for girls, Rosenbaum says, noting that the nine-minute, multi-movement work “has a beautiful baroque feel.” The Elm City Girls’ Choir has sung Magnificat several times before, and apropos to Porpora, the upcoming performance will be conducted by the choir’s most accomplished girls, who study conducting as well as voice.

Jazzing up the list is Jeff Fuller, conductor of Neighborhood Music School’s Premier Jazz Ensemble and himself an accomplished upright bassist. “It’s really hard to narrow it down,” he says of the request for his favorite holiday piece, echoing the sentiments of his colleagues. But he settles on Mel Tormé’s classic “The Christmas Song,” partly because he’s had the special pleasure of performing the piece many times on tour with Tormé’s son, musician Steve March-Tormé. “It’s one of those tunes that you can always play on jazz gigs and it never gets old or boring, you know?” Fuller says. “It’s always a challenging melodic and harmonic tune to play.” It’s a standard for a reason, he says. “For a song to be a jazz standard, it has to hold the interest of both the performer and listener.” (Here’s a jaunty big band version.) NMS’s Premier Jazz Ensemble won’t be performing again until a recital on January 22, but Fuller’s trio, including Darren Litzie on piano and Ben Bilello on drums, will be performing holiday favorites and dropping a new album, Round & Round, on December 21 at Best Video Film and Cultural Center.

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Ice Carving Competition and A Capella Concert presented by The Shops at Yale

Though Tormé’s tune comes out on top for Fuller, he gives an honorable mention to the entire body of old Christmas carols, which he learned in childhood. “Learning melody and harmony at that early age probably pushed me in the direction of being a musician,” he says. Fuller isn’t the only one to praise the old carols. Tipton tags “Joy to the World” as his favorite—“it’s happy, it’s uplifting, it’s forward-looking, let’s bring joy to the next year!”—and Rosenbaum can’t resist a mention of “O Holy Night.” “It’s just so touching and so beautiful,” she says. “It’s one that we come back to every year.”

One unexpected piece rises into the playlist courtesy of conductors Erika Schroth of Hopkins School and Marguerite Brooks of Yale Camerata. The composer? John Denver. Brooks stumbled across Denver’s “Noel: Christmas Eve 1913” while preparing for the Camerata’s free Advent Concert tomorrow, December 7. The program includes her current favorite seasonal piece, Gerald Finzi’s In Terra Pax, a setting of the same poem that inspired Denver. Written by the English poet Robert Bridges, “Noel: Christmas Eve 1913” tells of a Christmas Eve walk to the hills above a village where bells are pealing. The speaker thinks of those long-ago shepherds on a similar hillside and imagines he’s hearing “starry music.” Brooks particularly likes Finzi’s “brilliant” setting, which uses three verses of the Bridges poem interrupted by the Biblical text of the Christmas story from the book of Luke. The poem, composed on the cusp of World War I, is “pretty, and it’s poignant…” if you think about the historical context, Brooks says.

Schroth already knew the Denver piece. It’s included on John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together (1979), the album her family plays every year when they put up their Christmas tree. “I don’t even know if the tree would light up… if we don’t play that as we’re putting it up,” she says, laughing. “The Muppets are so genuine… They’re just good ‘people’ trying to get along and trying to be kind to each other, and so that kind of embodies what is best about the holiday season.”

Brooks and Schroth offer several runners-up as well. Brooks calls up the classics: Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, Corelli’s Christmas Concerto and Britten’s Ceremony of Carols. Schroth mentions a piece the Hopkins choir will perform in Battell Chapel at its winter concert. Written by Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo from his Winter Songs and inspired by (and named after) Christina Rossetti’s poem “The Rose,” the song, set in a minor key, “calls to mind the feeling of being in the middle of winter when everything kind of feels vast around you,” Schroth says. She also logs a vote for singer-songwriter Dar Williams’s “The Christians and the Pagans,” a song that she says “speaks to family dynamics and all that stuff that goes into sharing holidays with people in a way that sort of acknowledges the messiness but is ultimately just very loving and hopeful.”

Let heaven and nature sing, and feel free to sing along.

Photo Key:

1. Erika Schroth.
2. Chelsea Tipton.
3. Rebecca Rosenbaum.
4. Jeff Fuller.
5. Marguerite Brooks.

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image 1 photographed by Kerry Schutz. Image 2 provided courtesy of the New Haven Symphony Orchestra. Image 3 photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image 4 photographed by Paul Duda of StudioDUDA. Image 5 provided courtesy of Marguerite Brooks.

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