GHOSTS OF DICKENS and Nutcrackers, the St. Paul Winter Carnival, widespread possession by consumer demons, and chestnuts roasting by the remote-controlled gas fire are once again upon us--along with another staple of the year-end Saturnalia: Handel's Messiah. This year, the Dale Warland Singers team up with Bobby McFerrin andthe St. Paul Chamber Orchestra to offer two traditional performances and a sing-along version of the classic. Recently, we had a chat with Warland about this musical behemoth and its immense popularity in recent years.
For starters, why do audiences want to hear this piece over and over? "Well, first of all, it's good music," responds Warland, who is celebrating his 25th year as the animus of his world-renowned choir. "Not only is it well-crafted, it's inspired, and that's what makes music wear a long time. And it has become tradition; there's something within all of us that occasionally wants to do something or hear something that's familiar."
This seasonal nostalgia is compounded by our town's great receptivity to choral music. Whereas it often acts as a maiden aunt to orchestral music in other places, choral singing enjoys a high profile among Twin Cities audiences. "It's probably a combination of things," Warland opines, "but somehow, over the years, the leadership in the community--not just exclusively conductors or the choral leadership--has instilled in people the value of choral music, what it does for the mind and what it does for the soul. And that's been enhanced by the cultural life that migrated to this country with the Scandinavians, where there was a singing tradition, particularly in the church, but also in the schools."
People can reanimate that heritage at the Sing-Along concert, where the entire audience acts as the choir (bring your own score, or rent one at the door). You need not be a diva to join in--anyone who sang in a chorus in high school, lapsed from the church choir, or who just plain likes to sing is encouraged to join in. It's said that children with musical training do better in math and analytical thought, although that's not the only reason to sing, according to Warland.
"Just the details of making music stimulate the brain, and along the way it builds sensitivity to sound, to beauty, to people, to that stream of influence," he explains. "There's nothing like the human voice--either singing or listening, if it's good--to fill the soul. It is a spiritual thing that can happen when the elements come together."
After having fed the souls of his own choir, Warland will turn them over to Bobby McFerrin for the performances. What's it like to give up control of a choir as soon as it's weaned? "It depends on the conductor,' Warland assures. "If there's a mutual respect between conductors there's no problem. It's an honor and a privilege to work with a great musician like Bobby McFerrin. So even though he has not had a great deal of experience with choral music, and especially this work, I trust his musicianship, and he trusts how I prepare the chorus. It's a joy."
Lack of experience notwithstanding--McFerrin declined to be interviewed for this story on the grounds that he had "never done Messiah before"--the Resource Trust Creative Chair of the SPCO has gotten high marks from singers and audiences alike for his work with choirs. Singers who performed in his rendition, earlier this fall, of Fauré's Requiem use words like "transcendent" and "spiritual" to describe working with a conductor who is, almost uniquely among orchestra conductors, a singer himself.
McFerrin joined the SPCO staff to help the orchestra develop creative programming, and Warland, too has become known as a innovator in his field, championing the cause of 20th-century music and including at least one brand-new work in every regular concert. Audiences can expect a vibrant spirit in their collaboration.
"I feel very free to interpret," says Warland. He approaches works of the standard repertoire "always with an eye toward the past, and what we know of the original performances; but I think we have to adapt it to the instruments we use today and to the kind of singing technique that we have developed. I'm not a purist. I like a fresh interpretation of these classical works." (Scott Robinson)
Traditional performances of The Messiah are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. ($13-$35); the sing-along version starts at 11 a.m. Saturday ($23) at Ordway Music Theatre in St. Paul.
WHAT MAKES A rock & roll band want to cover, record, or even write Christmas songs? A spirit of irreverence either towards religion or the commercial monster the holiday has become? A genuine sentimentality or nostalgia? As a recovering Catholic, I try to simply enjoy Christmas without blowing it out of proportion or sanctified context. It's weird enough that "Christmas" takes up an entire 10 percent of the year (we spend an average almost 10 years per lifetime in Christmas!). But anyway, it seems plenty of local musicians are plenty comfortable in appropriating Chrismas cheer--and that seems true this year more than ever.
For the past few years, the local indie-rock standard for Christmas fare has been 1993's Christmas Anxiety, a delightfully fucked-up 20-band cassette compilation engineered by Glenrustles head Rich Mattson in his Flowerpot Studio (some copies may still be floating around). The concept was that various bands (now mostly defunct) got together, got blitzed, and went to work pissing on the yule log with varying degrees of quality and irreverence. Imagine Beangirl, with a chorus of crying babies, mincing up the sharps and (especially) the flats of "Christmastime is Here," and you can pretty much get the picture. As these things often are, the tape was ultimately a one-joke listen ("Oh, I get it! These guys are desecrating "Deck the Halls" by singing it drunkenly!"). But at least it was fun.
This year's Christmas tuneage is mostly the province of roots-rock players. The "sort-of-legendary" guitarist Dan "Fancy Dog" Neale (best known as part of Martin Zellar and the Hardways), has put together Fancy Dog's Rockin' Christmas, a 15-song instrumental CD recorded down at Pachyderm Studio with The Honeydogs's rhythm makers, Noah Levy and Trent Norton. (Zellar lends and understated guest vocal to "A Holly Jolly' Christmas.") With tame but proficient performances, the tracks recast familiar melodies as rockabilly ("Let it Snow," "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," "Hava Negala"), easy listening ("White Christmas," which is easy listening anyway), and mellow lounge exotica ("Christmastime is Here"). The surprise is that the genre-swapping works beautifully: Neale reminds us of how these songs, though now antiquated in folklore, are actually relics of the '50s (and, I might add, Cold War conformity and commercialism, but don't get me started).
For a raucous Christmas good time, though, you've got to hand it to the bumpkins of Trailer Trash. Their 21-track CD Hell, It's X-Mas is a true labor of love. Co-produced by Rich Mattson at Flowerpot (again), this disc is more naughty than nice--their use of "X-Mas" and the absence of religious songs is the first clue. Trailer Trash have a true country-music understanding of the contradictions of the holiday, as well as the ability to turn Xmas gloom into celebration ("Please Daddy Don't Get Drunk This X-Mas," "Don't Believe in X-Mas," "Walkin' in My Winter Underwear"). The vocal on "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" is letter-perfect, while fiddle player Mike "Razz" Russell pens a pair of originals including "Bleak Midwinter Polka" and the concluding "(We Made it Merry) One More Year"--the latter explaining why these guys are doing this in the first place. If you're planning a Christmas party with a rock & roll slant, you need these two CDs.
On a miscellaneous note, some bands have recorded Christmas songs for 1997 album releases. You can't buy them yet, but they have been sent to all the radio stations. The award for inspiration and originality goes to Marlee McLeod: An original tune called "No Vacancy" could be one of her best yet, with a crystal-clear vocal and lyrics of yearning Christmas sadness. The award for loud fast rules goes to Mezzofist's obedient punk-pop shake of "Jingle Bells." (Extra kudos for not pulling the "Batman smells" bit.) And finally, the award for indecency goes to Vinnie and the Stardusters and their cut "I Saw Mommy Fisting Santa Claus," whose title pretty much says it all. (Simon Peter Groebner) CP
Trailer Trash performs its third annual "Hell, It's X-Mas!" parties on Friday and December 20. Special guest Dan "Fancy Dog" Neale joins them for the December 20 show. $2. Call 338-9491.
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