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The Joy of Christmas with Leonard Bernstein and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir
A celebration of an unlikely collaboration
‘‘In the olden days, everybody sang. You were expected to sing as well as talk. It was the mark of a cultured man to sing.’’ - Leonard Bernstein
The traditional carols of Christmas are meant to be sung, whether in church, a street corner, a family gathering or quietly, in one’s heart. Few collections of songs are as well-known. No matter what one’s feelings about the holiday, most know at least the opening verse of ‘Silent Night’ and can sing it as well. It’s one of the reasons why I think Christmas music is one of our most profound forms of folk music. That doesn’t mean that every recording of a carol is worthy—far too many coast by on their very familiarity at the expense of considering the words and melody, and permitting them to guide the performance. But, this quibble notwithstanding, I stand by this rather quixotic notion of the music of the season.
Few better embodied a romantic notion of the power of music to connect, and the joy and nobility of immersing oneself in its world than Leonard Bernstein. While the recent remake of West Side Story is an occasion for Bernstein to re-enter the public consciousness, it bears noting just how central he was to the cultural life of the mid-20th century as a composer (of both symphonic and show music), conductor of the New York Philharmonic, recording artist, cultural ambassador and educator. In short, Bernstein was an unflagging and inspiring proselytizer of the transformative nature of music. To this day, to believe in it is to find kinship with Leonard Bernstein.
Naturally, thoughts of Christmas carols and Bernstein as the holidays are upon us leads to The Joy of Christmas, a 1963 recording Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic made with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. It’s an unlikely pairing, not least because the Choir’s conductor of choice around this time was Eugene Ormandy, who led the Philadelphia Orchestra for four-plus decades, a more conventional partner for an ensemble as steeped in tradition as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
Why Bernstein and the Choir paired up for The Joy of Christmas is anyone’s guess. There’s precious little information to be found online about this recording. The only long-form review I can find professes it to be ‘‘The greatest, goofiest Christmas ever made.’’
That there is a recording of Bernstein in his prime conducting a program of seasonal favourites is cause to rejoice at this time of the year. That it contains more than a few touches of the excitement and splendour for which Bernstein had an innate gift is cause for celebration even as it must be remarked that the arrangments are not by him but primarily by either Robert De Cormier, best-known perhaps for his work with Harry Belafonte, or Eddie Sauter, best-known perhaps for his work with Stan Getz.
It’s De Cormier who provides the vigorous arrangement of ‘The Twelfth Night Song.’ Bernstein's conducting brings out the head-long rush of the Magi quickly making their way to Bethlehem, especially through the brisk introduction that repeats just before the magnificent conclusion in which the full force of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir is matched with the Philharmonic for a joyous and exalted performance.
Gustav Holst’s setting of ‘Lullay, My Liking (I Saw a Maidan)’ is an opportunity for Bernstein to display his master of dynamics. Hear how the Philharmonic plays the main undulating melodic line full of verve and rapture. Hear, as well, how the Choir often stops right on a dime conveying a profound sense of reverence and the fantastical. Hear, finally, the dramatic pause which precedes a solo male voice twice reporting directly from the scene of the Nativity. It adds up to something that is constantly shifting but consistently thrilling. It’s arguably the highlight of The Joy of Christmas.
‘Carol of the Bells’ is the Philharmonic alone playing an arrangement by Sauter. Again, dynamic control is the name of the game. There is the thrust of momentum as the Philharmonic careens through the song which only stops to introduce a small section of the strings caressing the lead-in back to the main melody. Other joys are the main oboe line, likely played by Harold Gomberg, of ‘The Animal Carol’ and the tremendous build of ‘Once in Royal David's City’ (it’s the only way to truly perform this carol—one of the finest there is) though by the end, the sheer immensity of the Choir makes the words almost impossible to make out. No matter, the feeling here more than compensates.
The best of the carols here let the music and words breathe such as the opening ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’ as well as ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem,’ ‘Away in a Manger’ and ‘Stille Nacht (Silent Night)'.’ When the energy level is super-charged, you either get a tad too enthusiastic ‘Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly’ and ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ or, as on ‘Joy to the World’ and ‘God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,’ a feeling that is absolutely on point.
Like much of seasonal music, The Joy of Christmas reaches those who, on likely any other occasion, would pass on the chance to listen to Leonard Bernstein or the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. This may be another quixotic thought, but it’s nice to know that for a small period of time during the year, our ears, no to mention our hearts, open just a little wider. May they not so quickly close once this holiday season comes to a close.
Wishing you all, no matter how you may choose to celebrate this holiday season, a joyful and peaceful Season and better days in the New Year. See you all in 2022.