The North Carolina Symphony offered a retreat from the usual holiday treacle with their “Classical Christmas” program at UNC’s Memorial Hall. The program, traversing roughly two centuries of traditional and untraditional Christmas music, was divided into a light instrumental and a meatier choral portion, featuring the choruses from Handel’s Messiah.

Maestro David Glover admitted that he had difficulty finding “purely orchestral music” about the holiday season, with the exception of a “Santa Symphony” he quickly dismissed after listening to it. Although Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite is famous for its holiday-time associations, the other instrumental choices were novel, though popular, additions to a holiday program. Mozart’s charming “Sleigh Ride” from his Three German Dances, K.605, featured a reduced ensemble with the famous sleigh bell accompaniment. Two musical reworkings – Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” and Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on Greensleeves – were enjoyable and popular treats. The orchestra did not offer the cleanest sound; at several points the tempo was off-kilter, and the changing instrumentations seemed more distracting than diverse.

A reduced orchestra accompanied the North Carolina Master Chorale for the choruses from Messiah, Handel’s famous oratorio (which was actually premiered at Eastertime). Despite recent musicological arguments that Handel’s score and Charles Jennens’ libretto are deeply anti-Judaic,* the work endures as a Christmas-time classic. Nevertheless, listening to the choruses alone is a sort awkward anthologizing and de-contextualizing of a musical masterwork; several parts, like the angels singing “Glory to God,” seemed out of place without the preceding recitative announcing the coming glad tidings.

The Master Chorale, in reduced forces, was passable but not exquisite in their musicality. Glover did take advantage of the reduced voicing to give a very musical reading of an often-notoriously-under-rehearsed work, shaping phrases in contrast like “Glory to God” and the ensuing “and peace on earth” with dynamic oppositions (though this might upset the textual continuity of the angelic proclamation). “All We Like Sheep,” besides offering musical proof that Handel was not a native English speaker, was a highlight of the Messiah highlights, filled with careful hairpins and dynamic invention. The vocal melismas were nicely shaped throughout, but the overall sound was a bit rough around the edges. The NCS has to walk a careful line between musical integrity and popular appeal, and Christmas concerts highlight that line. As the audience and subscriber base of the orchestra grow, it will be interesting to see what choices they make in Christmas-time programming.

*An earlier article by the book’s author is here.