Musings on the Festive Season Just Past

The festive season of 2013, with its Messiahs, Nutcrackers, carol services, and musical chestnuts thumping from the sound system of every mall across the continent, has come and gone. December is over, and the days are a bit quieter for many of us, musicians included.  Most people believe Christmas to be a very busy work time for musicians, but it’s not necessarily so. It depends on what you play, where you play, who wants you to play, and what people seek as balm for their souls after slogging through the Christmas shopping, decorating the tree, and the office parties.

Most popular on this playlist is Händel’s Messiah, with its Hallelujah chorus, He was despised, etc., etc. Because of what I play I’m never involved in performances of this piece, since the orchestration for the original version doesn’t include flute or recorder; and I confess, perhaps to your surprise and to my shame, that I’m not all that sorry about this. My apologies to all who adore this piece, but I’m not a big fan and the only reason I’d be willing to play it night after night would be for a paycheque at the end. Since this mercenary attitude doesn’t exactly jive with the true meaning of the season, I’m happy to avoid this moral dilemma altogether. A December Messiah cheque would certainly come in handy for paying the bills that arrive in January, but it’s not the end of the world if I don’t get to play a dozen Messiahs. Or thirty Nutcrackers.

Original costume design for Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker, 1892

Original costume design for Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, 1892

Messiah was first performed in Dublin in 1742, and a year later in London, but during its life it’s been revised various times and what many people today hear as part of their Christmas tradition isn’t Händel’s original version. In 1789 Mozart was commissioned to rework it, and in so doing he added parts for flutes, clarinets, trombones and horns. His version was published in 1803, several years after he died, and it’s this version that is used by many modern-practice groups these days. It could also theoretically be used by period performance groups, if they weren’t so busy being true to Händel’s original; though you may occasionally have the opportunity to take in a historically informed performance of Mozart’s version of Messiah, it’s quite rare. For players of the instruments Mozart added, it’d be fun to be involved in such a performance; but if you really want a make-work Messiah for flutists, then the best version to revive would be Hillers from 1788 which featured eight flutes (plus hundreds of other players and choristers). But does anyone really want to hear that?

What’s a recorder/historical flutes player to do at the festive season, then?

Well, you might get to play the Christmas Story by Heinrich Schütz, dating from about 1660, which does have recorder parts. Or Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, which calls for flutes in the first three of six glorious cantatas which make up this piece. Well, sometimes I do get to play in those, but Canadian presenters don’t program these pieces anywhere near as often as their European counterparts, more’s the pity. But the other piece which can be often be heard at this time of year is Charpentier’s Messe de minuit, which calls for recorders in the simple yet beautiful settings of many lovely old French carols.

If you’re not familiar with these, you might want to check them out. You can hear the whole Christmas Story of Heinrich Schütz here:

This festive season I wasn’t involved in any Charpentier, Schütz or Bach, but I did enjoy some concerts of a smaller, more independent but no less celebratory sort. In late November, for a recital at Islington United Church, Baroque harpist Julia Seager Scott and I combined arrangements of carol tunes from the 13th to 17th centuries with music by Corelli, Händel, Frescobaldi, Oswald and O’Carolan. In mid-December Toronto Consort and various guests gave three performances of Navidad, featuring festive music from 16th– and 17th-century Spain and Latin America. Here’s an example:


And between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, Ensemble Polaris rocked out the old year with Definitely Not the Nutcracker. Our CD of the same program has been getting some great reviews and we’re already booked for some shows of the program next year, so perhaps we’ll create our own tradition. Here’s one of the tunes you may eventually recognize:

NutNouv Cover small

While looking back on the smaller and more personal gigs of the season I remembered playing a couple of Christmas pageants many years ago, at the downtown Church of St Mary the Virgin and St Cyprian. I was in high school and studied piano with the church’s organist. She must have thought that a flute would be a nice touch in the pageant music, and it was fun to drive from the suburbs into deepest darkest Toronto to play a random collection of suitable tunes while people dressed up as Joseph, Mary, angels, Wise Guys and barnyard animals to create some genuine community theatre. It was wintry, it was cosy, and it was genuinely friendly. I also loved the building, and thought that the church had a really cool name – second only to St James Bond United, so named due to the unification of two United Church congregations (St James and Bond).

Our rehearsals always took place in the evening and, it being December, it was always dark during our drives downtown so I never really saw the neighbourhood in which the church was located. Many years later I was entertained to discover that my husband and I had moved into a house only two blocks away!

The church has long since ceased to be active and has been the twinkle in many a developer’s eye for quite a few years now. Development projects have been started, cancelled, put on hold, and the building is surrounded by boards, fences and plastic sheeting, many windows gone, no doubt a home to urban wildlife. Last year I happened on a blog post by Jonathan Castellino, who taken a number of very moving photographs. Do have a look at them, they are beautiful:


My regrets for such a long silence! Many posts have been started over the past weeks, only to be waylaid and left on the desktop…

Last night I was on the website for the Toronto-based new music organization Soundstreams, looking for info on their upcoming season, and I chanced upon a concert recording made back in March of 2011. It was a recording of ‘Breathe,’ a piece composed by James Rolfe and scored for three female voices with medieval instrumental ensemble, which in this case meant organ, recorder, nyckelharpa, lute and percussion. The words included texts from Hildegard of Bingen.

For the premiere, Soundstreams arranged for a collaboration between Norway’s Trio Medieval and the instrumentalists of the Toronto Consort, so lucky me – I was a part of it. Last night, listening, I was vividly reminded of how beautiful the piece was, and of the real fun it had been to rehearse and play it. Yes, there were some moments when we all thought we might come undone – but what a total pleasure it really was. Even if you think you don’t like ‘new’ music, give this a listen:

We rehearsed and performed in St. Anne’s Anglican, one of Toronto’s most historic churches. Built anew in 1907, the architect Wm. Ford Howland styled it after Byzantine models, and it has a beautiful central dome which dazzles with painted stars. Members of Canada’s artist collective the Group of Seven – MacDonald, Carmichael and Varley – were among the artists who decorated the new church in 1923 with spectacular paintings and sculpture. Worth a visit if you haven’t seen it!

I took some shots to remember the experience. Here are three.

Part of the ceiling, St. Anne's Anglican

Part of the ceiling, St. Anne’s Anglican

Around the organ - not the one we used! -

Around the organ – not the one we used! –

Pre-show setup.

Pre-show setup.