As we’ve started to return to the office in preparation for the 2022 Festival, things have been merry and bright at Spoleto HQ. Everyone’s in the holiday spirit, so we asked a few of our artistic directors and festival producers to share some favorite tunes keeping them company between now and the New Year.
Childhood nostalgia, the smell of baking cookies, the calm of a Cathedral on a cold evening–every emotion feels represented in our team’s selections, with picks from the top of the pop charts to classical hymns, plus a few from Festival alumni themselves.
Memories from youth were a recurring theme. Joe Miller, the Festival’s Director of Choral Activities, shared a piece he once sang, “Once in Royal David’s City,” a traditional hymn. “As a boy soprano this was my favorite thing to sing. We often used this as a procession on Christmas eve at my tiny Presbyterian church in East Tennessee,” said Miller.
Larry Blumenfeld muses Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time is Here” from A Charlie Brown Christmas gave him an early taste of the genre that would eventually lead him to serving as Wells Fargo Jazz Advisor at the Festival. “I grew up watching this Peanuts special. I’d mimic Snoopy dancing, nose up in the air,” he said. “Back then, I didn’t even know these chord changes signaled “jazz.” I just knew I liked them even more than the TV show.” (This track also received love from John Kennedy, the Festival’s Resident Conductor and Director of Orchestral Activities.)
Director of Artistic Planning and Operations Nicole Taney also was wistful for childhood, pointing to an album she had in first grade featuring Jimmy Durante’s “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” “I had no idea who Jimmy Durante was, but I got the album through the Scholastic book sale,” said Taney. “I was obsessed with it. I played it all the time–even in the summer.”
Our team’s tastes run the gamut, and especially so for Mena Mark Hanna, the Festival’s General Director. A self-described huge fan of Christmas music, who can “get pretty geeky about it,” Hanna is responsible for the presence of the Jackson 5, Queen, and Run D.M.C. on the playlist.
But his musicologist chops ring out with his top recommendation, the Christmas Mass by 16th century German composer Michael Praetorius. “Only the reconstruction by Paul McCreesh with the Gabrieli Consort,” Hanna notes.
Blumenfeld dipped into the Spoleto archives a bit, offering this funky track celebrating Channukah from Sharon Jones, as backed by the Dap-Kings, who helped Jon Batiste open the 2018 jazz series at Spoleto Festival USA.
He also highlighted the work of Geri Allen, the beloved pianist and composer who was slated to perform at Spoleto Festival USA before her death in 2017, too. At the Festival, Blumenfeld says, “we presented a tribute to her from musicians who knew her well. Of her many celebrated recordings, “A Child Is Born,” a collection of re-imagined Christmas songs, is singular for both its reflections of Allen’s musicality and her deep faith.”
Sometimes, though, Christmas music isn’t always the most fun for a musician, or so says John Kennedy of his young life as a freelance percussionist in New York. “I played enough Nutcrackers, Messiahs, and holiday pops for several lifetimes. I played all the musical chestnuts – not just those roasting on an open fire.”
Kennedy leaned into it, he says, “I didn’t just play sleigh bells, I found excellent vintage bells and developed thoughts about sleigh bell technique, texture, and articulation. That said, the ear worms live permanently in my psyche, and so my own preference for holiday listening is in variations off the well-beaten path.”
As such, he offers up Max Richter’s inventive recomposing of the Four Seasons and says the uplifting suite’s “dark but lively Winter movements are perhaps even more evocative of snow and ice than Vivaldi’s.”
Or what about when Christmas music is so bad it’s… good? John Kennedy suggests you take a listen to “one of the greatest Christmas songs ever,” WHAM/George Michael’s “Last Christmas,” in a version by a quartet of famous opera singers.
“You’re welcome,” Kennedy says.
Everyone had a tune or two that puts them in the holiday mood maybe more than any other–the songs that fuel all the baking, shopping, present wrapping, and holiday parties that the season demands. Miller says it’s the opening timpani and flutes that get this Bach oratorio on the list.
“The opening chorus of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio is intoxicating,” Miller said. “This will put you in the holiday mood and give you energy for all your holiday activity.”
When it comes time “to cook and do the hot toddies,” John Kennedy adds to the playlist favorites from the world of R&B; tracks like Lou Rawls’ “The Little Drummer Boy,” “I Want to Come Home for Christmas” by Marvin Gaye, and “Someday at Christmas” by the legendary Stevie Wonder.
Plus, no playlist would be complete without Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” which just this month crossed 1 billion streams on Spotify. “I have a weird penchant for various attempts by popular artists to cash in on the Christmas craze,” remarked Hanna. “Obviously, no one has really been able to do it at the level of Mariah.”
Yet Taney points out why it’s enduringly popular: “It’s the perfect Christmas pop song and it disappears right when it’s starting to get on your nerves.”
You can listen to all of these selections and more from our Spoleto staff with this curated Spotify playlist of essential holiday works.