Notes from the underground

Well, readers, we’ve come to the end of the semester, and what a semester it’s been. We’ve had laughs and gaffs, sass and Glass, spunk and yes, a little funk. I must say that you, the readers, have been quite consistent – any time I went to see if the CD I’d reviewed was checked out, it wasn’t. This is not to say that you never went and listened to my suggestions, only that you were very good at not letting me know about it. Or at least that’s what I’ve chosen to believe.

My plan for the big season finale is as follows (I was going to do a cliffhanger, but that’s SO 1997): review some Christmas music, and then do a little “what we’ve learned” from this year’s “Notes from the Underground.” But first, I must thank everyone who attended the Independent Music Project concert Saturday. It was a huge success. If you’re reading this and didn’t attend, then take a moment for self-flagellation or other punishment. Thank you.

Christmas has an immense significance in our society; the best proof of this is that we Jews decided to take a tiny little holiday (Chanukah) that falls around the same time and turn it into a huge spectacle. From the way we celebrate it, you’d think Sandy Koufax had started pitching again. You can’t deny there’s a unique and highly traditional atmosphere that surrounds the eagerly awaited Christmas season. In fact, I don’t think people would be as put off by the recent spring-like weather if it didn’t interfere so blatantly with their notions about a snowy New England Christmas and therefore their Christmas spirit.

Christmas music is part of this spirit, and there is certainly a lot of it to choose from. Composers and lyricists throughout the ages have written about Christmas; if you don’t know what I’m talking about, turn on public radio anytime between now and December 26th.

Professor Kenneth Roberts recommended a great piece of Christmas music that I’ll discuss in a bit. But first, I want to note the disc Adeste Fideles, Christmas Music from the Westminster Cathedral. (CD W37 2) To get the full effect, cut open your pillow and shake it in front of your face with the open end pointing down, then listen to “O come, all ye faithful”. My favorite track might be “I wonder as I wander,” which is reminiscent of British choral music from this century by Britten and Howells. Of course, it’s more likely that they took Christmas music as their inspiration than the other way around. In any event, this is a good CD on a great label (Hyperion), and it really gets you in the Christmas spirit — ready to shop.

The recording that Roberts recommended is Honegger’s Une Cantate de Noel, a beautiful Cantata for baritone solo, mixed chorus, children’s chorus and orchestra with organ (CDH68 10). Using church texts and Christmas carols, Honegger creates a wonderful homage to the spirit of Christmas. With a very clean, clear sound, he works in post-Impressionist harmonies. As the many voices blend together, it feels as if all the participants are acknowledging the undeniable power of, to quote an old song, this “special time of year.” I don’t have much to say about Honegger or the piece, but it’s really a lovely work, and very well crafted.

So, what have we learned this year? Here are a few things:

– My musical past just isn’t that interesting. Let’s face it, the column didn’t really get going until I stopped writing about Rimsky-Korsakov and moved back to this century. If anyone disagrees, let me know, but I’m sorry to have put you all through that.

– I don’t want to name names, but I wrote a letter to one of the composers I reviewed this semester, and he never got back to me. No, it wasn’t one of the dead guys. It was a living composer of whom I spoke very favorably, but we’ve learned that he’s either mean and nasty or doesn’t check his e-mail for months at a time.

– Owen Boger’s dad is one cool cat. Still the only person to write me. To all the parents out there—think of how popular your son/daughter will become if you write me a letter and I mention you in the paper. Just trust me on this one.

– People watch South Park. Or at least that was my sister’s explanation for why people had heard of Philip Glass….

– Pierre Boulez is a great orchestrater. His ears are too good for the rest of us, so his music is too difficult. But his “Notations for Orchestra” are dynamite, mostly because of the orchestration.

– Professor Roberts reads this column. I knew that before this year, since he would give me a pile of terrific material every week after the paper came out—but that was when I was in his class. The suspense leading up to this fall came from my uncertainty as to whether this tradition would continue now that I’m no longer in his class. Lo and behold, it has! And I appreciate all of the material that I have received in that fashion.

Have a great holiday! And may it be cold when we return.