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BY Stephen Hopkins
On stage and on television, a sampling of programs to get you, wherever you are, into the true spirit of Christmas.
THERE IS SOMETHING irresistible about Christmas. It is a holiday that unites and celebrates disparate cultures in a unique way. The birth of Christ brings an epiphany, we are all united as the children of God. This year, the Register previews many of the cultural events taking place around the country, on stage and on television, to mark this special season of joy. (Be sure to check specific program information against local listings.)
It is called “America's favorite Christmas fantasy.” Indeed, there is no more popular holiday performance than The Nutcracker. To the great George Balanchine this “is a ballet about Christmas … for children and for adults who are children at heart.”
The story is taken from the classic E.T.A. Hoffman tale in which the young Marie Stahlbaum is given a nutcracker doll on Christmas eve by her mysterious godfather, Herr Drosselmeier. That night, Marie finds herself in a strange world governed by Drosselmeier. As toys, furniture, and the Christmas tree mysteriously grow, mice creep out of the shadows to haunt her.
At Marie's bidding, the nutcracker, who has been transformed into a live soldier, battles the mice and conquers the Mouse King, a creature with seven heads.
After Marie helps the nutcracker defeat the mice, she faints and the nutcracker takes her to a snowy forest. Marie and the prince, guided by a brilliant star, are brought to the Land of Sweets, where an enchanting spectacle awaits them.
Certainly there is a great mythical dimension to The Nutcracker. Indeed some find biblical allusions as well. For Balanchine it is a “serious thing wrapped in a fairy tale.”
The work was the result of a collaboration between Maries Petipa, the French-born choreographer and architect of Russian ballet, and the great composer Peter Ilyitch Tchaikovsky.
It was originally presented by the Russian Imperial Ballet at the Maryinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. Incredibly that Dec. 17, 1892 performance was panned by critics, but young George Balanchine, who was cast as the Nutcracker Prince at 15, thought differently. To Balanchine, The Nutcracker was Tchaikovsky's masterpiece.
Many years later, when Balanchine had become known as the world's master of classical ballet, The Nutcracker was the first full-length work he choreographed for the New York City Ballet.
The Nutcracker premiered in New York Feb. 2, 1954 as the most lavish production ever staged by the Ballet. The production became even more elaborate in 1964, when the company moved to its grander and more technically-sophisticated quarters at the new Lincoln Center.
Some of the production's statistics are staggering. The famed Christmas tree weighs more than one-ton and grows from a height of 12 feet to 40 feet. It requires dozens of bushels of paper-confetti to create the on-stage snow storm. From the host of incredible costumes, the most elaborate is Mother Ginger's, which is nine feet wide, weighs almost 85 pounds and requires three handlers to lower it by a pulley over the dancer's head. The grand finale uses more light than any other New York City Ballet production to date, close to a quarter-million watts.
In the early days, the New York City Ballet went on tour to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, and Washington D.C. Today more than 200 communities across the country are performing their own production of The Nutcracker each season.
Certainly there is no grander Choral music for Christmas than George Frideric Handel's Messiah. After hearing this baroque oratorio, you may find it impossible to read a verse like Isaiah 9, 6 and not be swept up by Handel's melodic exuberance: “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, The Mighty God, The Everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.”
Handel composed the entire score in an inspired frenzy, completing it in just a few weeks. Yet, despite its venerable age and hasty composition, it possesses a timeless and unparalleled power.
The Messiah made its premiere in Dublin in 1724. Yet various arias went through constant transformations as Handel sought to accommodate them to the talents of available singers. By 1750 The Messiah became an annual feature on the London musical scene. Today we have Martin Josman of the National Choral Council to thank for helping to popularize The Messiah sing-ins.
The Germanic Handel picked up the Romanesque style oratorio during his years in Italy. He brought the form to its zenith with The Messiah and gave the oratorio cachet for all of Europe.
The baroque style was often identified with the Catholic counter-reformation and was soon to be criticized by the more puritanical segments as “distorted by a profusion of unnatural ornamentation.”
Yet the Protestant aristocracy loved it. In fact, King George I of England became Handel's major patron. For the aristocracy, Handel composed regal music to accompany river cruises and private fireworks.
While much of his music evokes the private grandeur of courtly excess, today the popular Messiah sing-in has become a strangely egalitarian event. The opera stars may take the solo arias, but the chorus belongs to the audience. Some come with their own scores, others purchase them at the door. Some community choirs buy blocks of seats, others are filled by the Brooklyn cabby with the booming baritone or the shy librarian who only sings in the shower. But all come, ready for the thrill of “letting it loose” on The Messiah with a full symphony.
In The Messiah, we come before the Lord with one voice. It is easy to accept the secularist dogma that faith should be a private affair. We can forget that we are required to make a public proclamation of that faith. Who would have thought that Symphony Hall could be such a place. The Messiah proves that our prayers need not always be private and silent.
If you want to share in the glory, put down that digitally-enhanced, Dolby surround-sound walkman and be a part of some real surround-sound at a Messiah sing-in. Share the joy of Christ's birth at Symphony Hall.
Another seasonal favorite is the performance of the Christmas Oratorios of Johann Sebastian Bach. Although they were originally written as a Christmas gift for the Saxon royal family in 1773, these festive cantatas were given to the people of Leipzig the following season in six sections performed between Christmas Day and the Epiphany. This season they can again be heard from Boston to San Francisco.
Many cities are offering far more than just a traditional classical repertoire. Some of the wonderfully eclectic programs include The Black Nativity (Langston Hughes). Cleveland's Jelliffe Theatre combines this presentation of electrifying gospel music with stunning modern dance.
Certainly one is hard pressed to find a more joyful celebration than Fiesta in Mexico-Feliz Navidad in Los Angeles. Through a rich tapestry of song, color, and dance, the Ballet Folklorico del Pacifico explores the rich origins and significance of Mexico's Christmas traditions.
The Rockettes'Christmas Spectacular at Radio City Music Hall is one of the most surprising holiday traditions. We all expected the Rockettes' precision high-stepping as toy soldiers, but many are pleasantly surprised to find a very dramatic and indeed, spectacular, nativity scene, appointed with palm trees, live camels, and a flock of real sheep!
Here is a sampling of Christmas programs from cities around the country:
The Sounds of Christmas Coast to Coast
Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols Glenn Memorial Auditorium Atlanta, Ga. Dec. 5
U.S. Air Force Band Christmas Concert Meyerhoff Symphony Hall Baltimore, Md. Dec. 2
Festival Chorus Boston Conservatory Boston, Mass. Dec. 10 (free admission)
Christmas Oratorio (Bach) Boston Conservatory Boston, Mass. Dec. 18, 21
A Procession of Carols Old South Church Boston, Mass. Dec. 19
Christmas Concerto (Bach) Symphony Orchestra Symphony Hall, Detroit, Mich., Dec. 4
Christmas Oratorio (Bach), New England Conservatory Jordan Hall, Boston, Mass, Dec. 18
Vienna Boys Choir, New England Conservatory-Jordan Hall, Boston, Mass., Dec. 13
A Medieval Christmas Celebration, The Newberry Library, Chicago, Ill., Dec. 10
Legends of St. Nicholas, Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago, Ill., Dec. 12
An Old World Christmas, Immanuel Lutheran Church, Evanston, Chicago, Ill, Dec. 13
Holiday Brass & Choral (baroque), St. Michael's Church Old Town, Chicago, Ill., Dec. 19
Black Nativity-Langston Hughes, Jelliffe Theatre, Cleveland, Ohio, Nov. 28-Jan. 4
Holiday Rainbow Brass Quartet, Severance's Reinberger Chamber Hall, Cleveland, Ohio, Dec. 6
Pops Concert 3: Christmas Pops, Detroit Symphony Hall, Detroit, Mich., Dec. 11–14
Home For The Holidays, Jones Hall for the Performing Arts, Houston, Teaxs, Dec. 11–14
Feliz Navidad-Ballet Folklorico, Luckman Fine Arts Complex, Los Angeles, Calif., Dec. 13–14
Bobby Rodriguez Latin Jazz Christmas, Luckman Fine Arts Complex, Los Angeles, Calif., Dec. 21
Home For The Holidays, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles, Calif., Dec. 14
Holiday Favorites- Moore By Four, Minnesota Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis, Minn., Dec. 5
Christmas at Doc's (Severinsen), Minnesota Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis, Minn., Dec. 19
Elijah (Mendelssohn), New York Philharmonic, New York City, Dec. 4, 6, 9
The Colors of Christmas, Carnegie Hall, New York City, Dec. 2
New York Pops with the Boys Choir of Harlem, Carnegie Hall, New York City, Dec. 5–6
New York String Orchestra, Carnegie Hall, New York City, Dec. 24
P.D.Q. Bach with Professor Peter Schickele, Carnegie Hall, New York City, Dec. 27 & 29
Vienna Boys Choir Carnegie Hall, New York City, Dec. 14 Holidays with the Boys Choir of Harlem, Avery Fisher Hall, New York City, Dec. 20
Holiday Brass, Avery Fisher Hall, New York City, Dec. 27 Rockefeller Christmas Spectacular, Radio City Music Hall, New York City Nov. 6- Jan. 24
Cathedral Choir and Harp & String Quintet, St. Patrick's Cathedral, Our Lady's Chapel, New York City, Dec. 11
Echo-Flute and Guitar, St. Patrick's Cathedral, Our Lady's Chapel, New York City, Dec. 11
City Singing at Christmas (Choral), St. Patrick's Cathedral, New York City, Dec. 18
The Tallis Scholars (Bach Festival), Church of the Holy Trinity, Philadelphia, Pa., Dec. 7
Mechem: Seven Joys of Christmas, First Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia, Pa., Dec. 5 & 7
Christmas Concert, Philadelphia Orchestra Academy of Music, Philadelphia, Pa., Dec. 7–8
AFeast of Carols: Mendelssohn Club, Church of Holy Trinity, Philadelphia, Pa., Dec. 13–14
A Colonial Holiday, Church of the Holy Trinity, Philadelphia, Pa., Dec. 19
Puer Natus Est: Piffaro, St. Paul's Episcopal Church Philadelphia, Pa., Dec. 19–21
Christmas on Logan Square, St. Clement's Church, Philadelphia, Pa., Dec. 20
The Other Christmas (Rincon Dance), City College Theater, San Diego, Calif., Dec. 18–21
Deck the Hall (Children), Davis Symphony Hall, San Francisco, Calif., Dec. 6
Brass and Organ Christmas, Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, Calif., Dec. 7
Christmas at Grace Cathedral, Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, Calif., Dec. 13–21
Christmas Cantatas (Bach), First Congregational Church, San Francisco, Calif., Dec. 5
The Gift of the Magi:, San Francisco Conservatory, Hellman Hall, San Francisco, Calif., Dec. 7
Candlelight Christmas, San Francisco Symphony, Davis Hall, San Francisco, Calif., Dec. 7
AChanticleer Christmas, Chanticleer, St. Ignatius Church, San Francisco, Calif., Dec. 13
Colors of Christmas, San Francisco Symphony, Davis Hall, San Francisco, Calif., Dec. 16–18
Christmas Pipe Dreams, San Francisco Symphony, Davis Hall, San Francisco, Calif., Dec. 20
Vienna Boys Choir, First Presbyterian Church, Seattle, Wash., Dec. 9
Christmas Concert (Jazz), Georgetown Univ. Performing Arts, Washington, D.C., Dec. 5
Christmas Revels George Washington Univ. Lisner Auditorium, Washington, D.C., Dec. 6
Christmas Oratorio (Bach), City Christian Church, Washington, D.C., Dec. 7
The Joy of Christmas, National Cathedral, Washington, D.C., Dec. 13–14
Choral Arts Society of Washington, Kennedy Center, Washington, D.C., Dec. 14–21
Although Tchaikovsky's score to The Nutcracker is 105 years old, its sweeping melodies and lavish stagings offer children a very accessible introduction to classical music and dance. This season, you can once again be enchanted by Marie's fantastic adventure with the Nutcracker prince in almost every major city in the country.
If you find that the ticket prices would deplete your “stocking-stuffer” account, you may want to check out the video. The New York City Ballet version, with George Balanchine's famed choreography, features Macaulay Culkin and narration by Kevin Kline.
A Christmas Carol
Many regional theaters are looking to classic tales for popular new holiday adaptations. Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol seems to be a favorite across the country. New York City's production has become so huge that it has to be performed in the cavernous Madison Square Garden. Its 350 feet of Victorian scenery, which surround the audience, is the largest set ever mounted in the city. This year, Hal Linden and Roddy McDowell will alternate playing Ebenezer Scrooge.
Of course, many cinematic versions are lining your video store shelves and will be rebroadcast on the small screen throughout the season. My favorite is still the1938 black and white version from MGM with Reginald Owen and Gene Lockhart.
Regional Theater & Film
This Year, companies like Cleveland's Bolton Theatre and San Diego's Frizt Theatre are offering musical renditions of the cinematic classic It's a Wonderful Life. It is curious that the film It's a Wonderful Life (RKO 1946) wasn't more of a box office success when it was first released. It has in the past two decades, however, become one of the most beloved and most watched films ever made.
It is here that director-screenwriter Frank Cappra's Catholic sensibilities of grace, redemption, and the dynamic presence of the spiritual world are most fully realized. As our world loses a sense of direction, the desperate figure of George Bailey looms all the more poignant and his redemption all the more inspiring.
The full schedule slated for both the regional companies indicates their confidence that they can translate these elements onto the musical stage. Of course, the film version, with Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, and Lionel Barrymore, can be found in virtually every self-respecting video store.
In Chicago, The Christmas Schooner is quickly becoming something of a holiday tradition. This musical tells the true story of the sailors who brought the Tannenbaum across the icy waters of Lake Michigan to 19th-century Chicago.
Other typical regional theater offerings include productions in Cleveland and Boston of A Child's Christmas in Wales, which is based on the classic by Dylan Thomas and offers a nostalgic look at Christmas through a child's eyes, and The Skinflint which is a musical comedy adaptation of Moliere's play, The Miser and is making its world premiere in St. Louis.
A Joyful Noise from PBS
Luckily some of the best Christmas cheer is quite close to your own hearth. PBS has the cultural lion's share on TV these days. Here they are:
The majestic Washington (D.C.) National Cathedral is the sight for Denyce Graves-A Cathedral Christmas. The acclaimed mezzo-soprano will be joined by the 100 voice Cathedral Choral Society, The Cathedral Boys Choir and the Cathedral Festival Orchestra. The special will feature traditional music like the Ave Maria as well as contemporary carols like Christmas Once More.
For more of a down-home feel, catch A Nitty Gritty Christmas with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. In the past 30 years the group has become one of America's best-loved acoustic pop bands. Guests include three-time country music female vocalist award-winner Kathy Mattea, folk diva Nanci Griffith and the angelic-voiced Aaron Neville. Country-jazz violinist Vassar Clements and John McEuen also join the circle of friends.
Acelebration of Ireland's cultural and religious heritage can be enjoyed on Faith of Our Fathers. Recorded at the Point Theatre in Dublin, this special features the Irish Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus, tenor Frank Patterson, soprano Regina Nathan, the voices of the Monks of Glenstal Abby and two exciting young singers, Iarla ÓLionáird and RÓs Ní Dhubháin. The anthems chosen represent the gems of religious music heard in Ireland over many generations.
Dublin's Point Theatre is the sight of yet another Christmas special, Perry Como's Irish Christmas. Special guests include the popular Irish singer “Twink”; Ireland's most famous marching band, the Artane Boys Band; the Chorus of the Glasnevin Musical Society; the boys of the Palestrina Choir; and the RTE Concert Orchestra.
In André Rieu: The Christmas I Love, the famed Dutch conductor and violinist combines holiday storytelling with his own music. Moving from a cozy log-cabin setting to a concert hall with the Johann Stauss Orchestra, Rieu plays holiday favorites including Ave Maria, White Christmas, Sleighride, and Silent Night.
Best-selling author of Care of the Soul and Soulmates returns to PBS in The Soul of Christmas: ACeltic Music Celebration with Thomas Moore. He is joined by Johnny Cunningham and his Celtic Ensemble, country favorite Kathy Mattea and actor Martin Sheen. Moore conceived the special to help viewers redis-cover the heart and soul of the holiday that he describes as “an ancient mystery that evokes an enchanting and haunting truth about the nature of things.”
Classical and gospel audiences join conductor Harvey Feider in Atlanta Symphony Gospel Christmas. The Grammy award-winning Orchestra performs with the 225-voice All-Atlanta Chorus and the Pointer Sisters to create a rafters-rattling toe-tapping night of gospel.
Immediately following, you can catch Carols from Atlanta: The 70th Anniversary Morehouse-Spelman Christmas Carol Concert. Classic carols, spirituals and African folk hymns highlight this one-hour concert special featuring the combined glee clubs of Atlanta's Morehouse College and Spelmen College. This annual event has been a high point of Atlanta's holiday season since 1926.
Cincinnati Pops Holiday with Erich Kunzel and Mel Tormé features an exuberant mix of traditional carols, popular favorites, children's voices, and dancing. Also featured are Indiana University's 120-member Singing Hoosiers Choir and the Children's chorus of the Cincinnati School for the Creative and Performing Arts.
In Christmas at St. Olaf, the world renowned choir of Minnesota's St. Olaf College raise 450 voices with the 100 member orchestra to bring you familiar Yuletide carols and Scandinavian songs sung in their original language. The annual St. Olaf Christmas Festival dates back to 1903 and was named by TheNew York Times“one of the top-10 Christmas events in the United States not to be missed.”
Conductor Dr. Nathan Carter will present Carols from Atlanta: The Morgan Choir: ASilver Celebration. This inspiring program, which has received three regional Emmy awards, offers a diverse musical selection including the choral movement Ode to Joy from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, Ezekiel Saw De Wheel, and more contemporary hymns, including The Lord Be Praised and Precious Lord.
Ringing in more Christmas cheer on New Year's Eve, PBS offers An Ode to Joy: The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. Zdenek Macal conducts Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Opus 125, Choral, featuring renowned soloists Gabriela Benackova, soprano; Marietta Simpson, mezzo-soprano; Gary Lakes, tenor; Paul Plishka, bass; and the Westminster Symphonic Choir.
If you miss the Vienna Boys Choir on their U.S. tour this season, you can catch them in their 500th anniversary season from their home town in Great Performances From Vienna: the New Year's Concert 1998. Zubin Mehta will conduct the Vienna Philharmonic in the majestic Musikverein Hall performing a selection of beloved Strauss waltzes.
Treasures on the Small Screen
On ABC LeAnn Rimes will star in the drama Holiday in Your Heart. CBS offers The Christmas Box, which is based upon the novel by Richard Paul Evans about a young woman's struggle during one holiday season to regain her father's affection. NBC presents Christmas in Washington, a family variety special to enjoy with the nation's first family.
Unfortunately, the networks seem to be cutting back on much of their Christmas programming. While CBS still holds onto the more secular children's animated specials like Frosty the Snowman, the buzz is that the more spiritual classics like The Grinch that Stole Christmas or the more overtly religious specials like The Little Drummer Boy have seen their last days on the major networks.
These classics can, however, be found in an increasing number of video-stores nationwide. Perhaps these gems are best enjoyed without commercial bombardment anyway. Happily, Charlie Brown will still be directing his nativity pageant on CBS this season.
Your video stores can also provide some surprising holiday treasures like the charming, yet rarely seen, animated classic Madeline's Christmas. This is Ludwig Bemelman's tale of a young girl's holiday adventure in a Parisian convent school.
CCC of America produces some wonderfully entertaining animated specials for kids on the lives of the saints, including Nicholas, the Boy who Became Santa. It is a charming story told in a Christ-centered context. You can't find it in the video stores, however. You have to order directly at 1-800-506-6333. They are now offering a Christmas special for $9.99.
In New York City, the hottest tickets in town are to midnight Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral, which are gone months in advance. But you don't need a ticket to join Pope John Paul II beneath Michelangelo's vaulting dome for midnight Mass from Vatican City. Each year NBC broadcasts the Mass late on Christmas Eve. One senses the awesome universality of the Church when all the countries of the world who receive this broadcast are listed. The Mass is the world's most widely broadcast event.
Also be sure to check out EWTN listings, as Mother Angelica's network promises to offer an abundance of fine Christmas programs.
Christmas on the Networks
Christmas Miracle, ABC Special, ABC, Dec. (TBA, check local listings)
A Charlie Brown Christmas, CBS Special, CBS Dec. 3, 8:00 p.m.
Holiday in Your Heart, ABC Sunday Night Movie, ABC Dec. 14, 9:00 p.m. EST
Christmas in Washington, NBC Special, NBC, Dec. 19, 10:00 p.m. EST
The Christmas Box, CBS TV movie, CBS, Dec. 25, 9:00 p.m.
Midnight Mass,, St. Peter's Basilica, NBC, Dec. 24 (TBA, check local listings)
Stephen Hopkins is based in New York.