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Cocoa for Christmas: Britten and Much More from The Colorado Choir

A preview by Betsy Schwarm

At this time of year, Christmas choral concerts seem to happen on an hourly basis.  Many have the same overall plan:  carol arrangements old and new with a dash of audience sing-along.  Certainly, there’s much to be said for the tried and true.  However, more adventurous ensembles branch out rather further in their holiday repertoire, offering something that listeners won’t find on every street corner. 

Kelly Parmenter

Founded in 1976 and now in its 43rd season, The Colorado Choir is one of those ensembles that reaches beyond the usual.  As its conductor/artistic director Kelly Parmenter says, “It’s important that a Christmas concert contain material that is familiar to the audience, but we must also share compelling literature that will inspire and engage our listeners.”  So though Silent Night doesn’t appear on the main portion of the choir’s 2019 Christmas programs, one does find It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, some audience sing-alongs, a generous helping of Benjamin Britten, and even a dash of Amahl

The Colorado Choir

Moreover, the entire instrumental accompaniment is provided by a single harpist.  Britten had recently acquired a harp manual from a colleague, and apparently wished to demonstrate that he had learned a thing or two from that resource.  One might also imagine that, in the back of his mind, he had the notion of Medieval and Renaissance songs that in performance might have been accompanied by a single string instrument.  In those cases, it would originally have been a lute, though employing a harp instead allows for an impressively wide palate of colors.

The largest scale single work on The Colorado Choir programs (set for December 6 and 7) is Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols, op. 28, dating from 1942.  Although it was written by one of the most prominent composers of the 20th century, Britten’s work is relatively rarely performed, due to its unusual scoring.  Britten first imagined it for soprano and alto voices only:  so a women’s choir, or a youth choir, but no men.  There is, however, an SATB arrangement, and this is what The Colorado Choir will perform.

For the Colorado Choir concerts, the harpist will be Denver native Emily Levin, currently principal harp of the Dallas Symphony.  Levin graduated from Arapahoe High School.  During Levin’s time there, the conductor of both the choir and the orchestra was The Colorado Choir’s Parmenter, who says she’s been trying for several years to coordinate a Britten performance with her former student.  At last, the timing worked out.  Parmenter says of the Britten, “More people should know this piece and with a great harpist it is truly extraordinary.”  Parmenter and Levin joined forces to perform Ceremony of Carols during Levin’s junior year of high school:  now they’ll do it again.

Emily Levin, harp

Of the work, Levin declares it to “one of my favorites.”  Further, she says that Britten, who numbered amongst his friends the superb Welsh harpist Osian Ellis, “is one of the best composers for the harp… I think Britten understood how to write for the harp in a way that showcased the instrument’s strengths–although we are set up very similarly to a piano, you have to spend a lot of time with the instrument to know how to really make it sing. Once you combine that kind of writing with Britten’s beautiful harmonic language and you pair it with singers – arguably his strongest compositional medium – you have a really magical piece.” 

Other than the opening and closing a cappella movements, the harp is nearly ever present.  Sometimes, its lines are delicate, at others assertive, and this contrast becomes clearest in the central Interlude, where it’s utterly solo harp with no vocal element at all for just a few minutes.   It opens similarly to the third movement of the Britten, setting the carol There is no Rose.  Then there is one main theme that expands in range each time it reappears.  Levin observes, “You then come away the same way that you arrived to the climax,”  and adds, “It’s so perfectly mapped out, and really demonstrates the dynamic depth of the harp.” 

Other than a few Latin prayers, much of the text of A Ceremony of Carols is in Middle English (complete with Chaucerish spellings), along with some delvings into Renaissance verses.  Musical styles range as far as the texts, from tender to rambunctious, mysterious to fervent.  Parmenter observes, “Music, as life, is made up of moments both large and small, fast and slow, melodic and rhythmic. I love the span of all of those elements contained in this work.”  With none of the movements spanning more than about four minutes, and some as short as a minute or two, it is a work in which spirit and energy are ever changing.

Readers may have gathered that the presence of the Britten raises this year’s Christmas programs by The Colorado Choir well above the ordinary.  However, even the “ordinary” has its charms when it’s well presented.  The ballad-like flow of John Rutter’s arrangement of the Wexford Carol from Ireland and the perky verve of the old French carol Bring a Torch, Jeannette, Isabella together (amidst much else) prove the breadth of expression one finds in music for the Christmas season. 

At various times in the program, attention will fall on vocal soloists chosen from the membership of The Colorado Choir.  In the Britten, these will be sopranos Julia Coffey and Allison Howard.  With the shorter selections found on the latter half of the program, prominent places will go to soprano Kirsten Peaslee, tenor Emmanuel Verges, baritone Jay Peaslee, and basses Rob Swaney and Nathan Jones.  The most obvious instruments other than Levin’s harp will be percussion These appear in Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day, where Mick Parmenter and David Schutte will ensure that a danceable beat is present.

The program will include sing-along selections, both because audiences enjoy them and, as Parmenter asserts, for the sake of “sharing and building a sense of community.”  In all, she hopes that audiences may find the concerts to be as heart-warming as “a cup of hot cocoa. Sit and relax, sing with those around you and walk out filled with a feeling of love and joy.”

Christmas with The Colorado Choir will be performed Friday, December 6, and Saturday, December 7, at Augustana Lutheran Church, 5000 East Alameda, a short distance east of Colorado Boulevard.  Both programs begin at 7:30pm, though the Friday performance also includes a post-concert reception.  That may be the perfect opportunity to revel in that “sense of community” that Parmenter imagines, and perhaps a cup of cocoa, too.  Just right for the season!

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