Nontraditional Holiday Choral Programs

The December holidays are synonymous with choral music, and thousands of people in North America celebrate with singing in or attending concerts that feature timeless carols and familiar favorites. But some choruses are breaking away from the tried-and-true holiday concert formula. We spoke with several choral leaders whose ensembles are highlighting lesser-known traditions, or using holiday themes to explore more universal concepts or address timely social issues.

Aurora Chorus

Jaclyn Leeds, Board Chair
An excerpt from the artistic director’s program note for this year’s holiday program:The word ‘holiday’ means ‘holy day.’ Aurora Chorus endeavors to celebrate the ‘holi-days’ of December with universal expressions of wonderment, awe and with yearnings to be made whole (to be holy). And so it’s our hope that these songs may put some of the ‘holy’ back into your holiday season.”

National Lutheran Choir

Brittney Leemon, Development and Marketing Manager
From NLC’s press release: “This season’s Christmas Festival seeks to answer the question: with our doors and borders closed, is there room for Christ to be born today? The National Lutheran Choir gives voice to this narrative through an electric array of poetry, exquisite choral music, and beloved carols.”

Ragazzi Boys Chorus

Joyce Keil, Artistic Director
“Our concert this year was called ‘Ubi Caritas: Where There Is Love.’ The idea was that all these different faiths value love, and let's look at what brings us together.” The program featured works from the Hindu, Jewish, and Muslim faiths, with the boys singing in Hindi, Latin, Urdu, Hebrew, Yoruba, Khemitic, and English.

The Esoterics

Eric Banks, Founding Director
“Our concerts this season are about the forces that draw people together – either up or down, across or together. Our December concert was about contemplating extremity, and the force that draws us upward and gives us perspective to look down, like the angels of the nativity.”

Tonality

Alexander Lloyd Blake, Artistic Director and Founder
Tonality’s “Stories of Home” program this year examined refugees and immigration – looking at Jesus, Joseph, and Mary as refugees – and brought representatives from homeless shelters to the concert.

What inspired you to program something nontraditional for the holidays?

Jaclyn Leeds: Aurora Chorus recognizes and respects the diversity of its singing members. We are Christians, Jews, Buddhists, agnostics and non-deists. Since 1993 it has been Aurora’s tradition to ALWAYS program and present choral concerts that celebrate the winter holiday season with universal themes that are both inclusive of everyone and appropriate to the month of December. 

Brittney Leemon: In our 2017-2018 strategic plan, one of five major goals is to "understand the National Lutheran Choir's place in a diverse world." This year's Christmas Festival was programmed to use the power of great music to raise up humanitarian causes like the global refugee crisis, and use the familiar Christmas story to help connect our audience to those causes.

Joyce Keil: I heard Santa Fe Desert Chorale sing a concert of Islamic music along with spirituals and readings from the Sufi poet Rumi. I was mesmerized. One of the pieces they performed, "Adinu," was published (by earthsongs). A man from Lebanon that I met came and worked with us on improvisation and helping the piece sound authentic. My high school men were very courageous and willing to just go for it. At the time I was worried about whether an Islamic piece would be accessible, and the positive reaction was overwhelming. The second motivation for me is that my singers are from a diverse population. It's really moving to them when we include repertoire from their culture.

Eric Banks: I would much rather be inclusive than exclusive in my programming. I'm aware that the music surrounding us this time of year is predominantly Christian. I feel like Seattle is the kind of city that loves choral music but a lot of the audience, like myself, isn't Christian – and we're already asking them to come into a church for choral concerts. It seems more inclusive to sing about similar themes, but not include the religion.

Alexander Lloyd Blake: The nativity is not a pretty story, and that was an impetus for me to think about other ways to treat it musically. We forget what the first Christmas story was like because of the traditions we have now in our culture. The story teaches us what we can be – each of us in our own way can be the innkeeper to someone. You don't have to give up your whole place, but we can validate each other's presence and be in community. 

The holidays have not always been the happiest time for a lot of people. The pressure to think about all the gifts that are assumed around the holidays creates more of a need to bring these kinds of topics forward. Especially right now with what's happening with immigration and how we treat "the other" in this country. It seemed it would be a nice time to remind people what the real reason for this holiday is meant to be. 

In what ways do you try to maintain the more familiar aspects of the holidays?

JL: Aurora has focused on universal themes that, like the holiday season, return every year in the hearts and minds of our wider community. Our concerts speak to our commonalities. Artistic director Joan Szymko creates programs utilizing music from different ages and cultures, music from contemporary choral composers, and with poetry that reinforces the flow and arc of the theme or story. Always included in our concerts are moments of frivolity and laughter, and frequently, audience participation. 

BL: We maintain the more familiar aspects of the holidays by keeping the basic structure of our Christmas Festival the same. Our program consists of choral pieces, poetry readings, and congregational hymns. By keeping the format the same, we are able to introduce new ideas and themes to our audience members in a recognizable way.

JK: We still include traditional Christmas music. We also sing Jewish music. We've done Christmas carol sing-alongs, and made a point of encouraging the audience to sing along – and I think they do.

EB: The sky is often a good theme, or winter in general along seasonal or natural themes. It could be about the intimacy between a mother and a child. Sometimes I actually program music around the nativity, just not for the religious reasons. I don't avoid Christian texts – I'm interested in highlighting music that isn't performed often. 

ALB: Some of the lines in our songs contained the Christmas story but also were tied to the message. We performed "Away in a Manger," but we also found a poem called "Away and in Danger." It follows the same melody but it talks about refugees: "Away and in danger, no hope for a bed, the refugee children, no tears left to shed." We had students from a high school chorus sing the original text of "Away in a Manger," and we had a version of "Away and in Danger" arranged for us. That was a very literal connection. 

Holiday concerts are often a big source of revenue for choruses. How did that factor into your decision to go a less traditional route?

JL: Our December concert remains our best-selling concert. Aurora understands that our audience is like us: culturally and spiritually diverse, yet nevertheless desirous of opportunities during the holiday season to feel the warmth of connection with the wider community. Our December presentation is popular because of strong programming and beautiful music well sung, but also because we are not just performing - we are sharing with our audience a feeling of sanctuary, the opportunity to breathe in a moment of tranquility amidst the cacophony of our world.

BL: Our staff and board are all very committed to our strategic plan, and we felt that this non-traditional theme was an important step forward. At the end of our Christmas Festival concerts this weekend, we saw an increase in ticket sales from last year's festival. This exciting news makes us hopeful, and it might suggest that our Twin Cities patrons are eager to hear more non-traditional programming from their favorite chorus.

JK: Our audiences have been as large for our recent holiday programs as they have been in the past. We have an advantage as a children's chorus in that we have our base of parents, but we have community members attend also.

EB: I've never really thought about a cash cow for The Esoterics because it's a new music ensemble. We have a staff of one, so we don't have to worry about it in the same way. For me, the fact that we can offer something during the holidays as an alternative is something that adds to the richness of the community. In that balance between art and commerce, I've always put my finger on the scale towards art. If it means that I'm paid a little less because of it, that's the breaks. 

ALB: I was trying to think of something different. For those of us in the choral profession, holiday music is a staple. Sometimes I can get disenchanted with holiday music – I guess I went out on a limb and assumed I wasn't the only one. I did think that perhaps people would be interested in hearing a concert around the holidays that was not the norm, and not the same thing being done so well already by the other groups that are here. We did end up selling out the seats at the church, so I think it was successful. 

Do you have any suggestions for choruses who are interested in taking their first step towards a more adventurous holiday program?

JL: Seek out the big, universal themes inherent in the season. Tell an over-arching story that speaks of one of the following: light, generosity, love, peace, faith in the light, renewal, etc.

Employ a diversity of musical styles—not in a smorgasbord fashion, but rather to tell a story.

Use accompanying forces to bring in familiar “sounds” of the Christmas holiday—e.g. harp accompaniment, hand bells, Celtic music, a brass quintet.

Choose a dynamic concert title song that helps you program the rest of the concert (Aurora just did this with Catherine Dalton’s “Sweet Radiant Mystery”).

BL: We would suggest choosing your promotional language of any non-traditional programming carefully, so the description of your program is clear, concise, and respectful of all beliefs and opinions.  Also, make small changes year-to year to help acclimate your patrons to the changes in the status quo and let them warm to the new ideas over time.

JL: Be courageous and have fun! I'll admit, I was scared that I didn't know how to do justice to different styles of music. I was scared that my audience wouldn't like it. I think that if you can find someone that has some experience in the tradition that you're performing, that will help, and if you can’t, there are resources. Most of the publishers and composers are more than willing to be contacted. The Santa Fe Desert Chorale was very helpful to me, and I'm certainly willing to be helpful to people. There's a lot of help out there.

EB: I think that if you're going to program on a theme in conjunction with the season, stick to it for the whole show. Go for it with a complete commitment one year and see what the audience feedback is. It’s difficult to make the impression you're going for and get honest feedback from the audience that if you’re trying to work only a piece or two into a holiday program.

ALB: If it feels like these are humongous steps, especially for choruses that are known for putting on traditional holiday concerts, there are ways to connect the story and the meaning of the season to a bunch of different topics. You don't have to totally do away with all the tradition. If people are looking for a holiday concert, they will find it. I think there is room for people to feel comfortable to branch out. 

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