Verdigris Ensemble Reimagines the Sound of Christmas with New Music

Verdigris Ensemble's "Twas the Night Before Christmas" concert will be performed on December 6 and 8 at Royal Lane Baptist Church in Dallas and December 7 at Northridge Presbyterian Church in Dallas

Photo 1 of Verdigris Ensemble Christmas concert in 2017
Dickie Hill

Music is the universal language of the holiday season, uniting memory and hope; secular and sacred. Verdigris Ensemble's "Twas the Night Before" holiday concert reflects that joyous combination.

"There is something about humans in a single room singing together that naturally reflects the communal and warm part of the holiday season," Sam Brukhman, Verdigris Ensemble's artistic director, said. "We always say that music speaks what cannot be expressed through words. And in this case, not only are we expressing warmth and nostalgia, but also laughter, love, and joy through a series of different pieces of music, from classics from the Charlie Brown Christmas Special to our new commissioned music."

The concert revolves around Clement Moore's "A Visit from St. Nicholas" and incorporates two world premiere pieces from North Texas composers. "We believe that new music is an effective tool to convey music that is relatable and interesting to audiences who have never been to a classical music concert. By commissioning new music, we are able to tell human stories that are story-driven and relatable to audience life experiences in present day. By doing this, we can help bring new audiences to appreciate and love classical and choral music," Brukhman said.

Blake Henson, an adjunct professor of music at Texas Wesleyan University, will premiere a piece based on Marjorie Pickthall's "A Child's Song of Christmas." He talks about his new work and the role of music during the holiday season.

Photo 2 of Verdigris Ensemble Christmas concert 2017
Dickie Hill
Singers Erinn Sensenig, Elizabeth McGee, and Lauren Stroh perform a trio during a Christmas concert at Royal Lane Baptist Church.

NBCDFW: What is it about choral music that expresses the joy and nostalgia of the season so beautifully?

Blake Henson: By its nature, Christmas is an event that's celebrated communally. It's a time of deep acculturation. There are a number of pre-existing traditions that echo in our minds and that have been reinforced through multiple channels of communication, both commercial and religious. Said another way, Christmas music is virtually inescapable. It is the unbidden soundtrack of the season, and yet choral singing seems to be at the heart of so much of it. Partly, I think that's because choral singing is by its very nature a group enterprise. Part of it is as well that Christmas, even for the marginally religious only, is still one of those celebrations which draws our attention and urges us into a church setting. And what happens in a church setting that is most approachable? Singing, of course. Listening to choirs or being part of a congregational choir - these are part and parcel to the Christmas experience even for the most casual of churchgoers.

Choral music, by its own nature, is trans-generational. It's easy to wax nostalgic at Christmas because we have so much music handed down from one generation to the next that dipping into the well of antiquity somehow feels comfortable and familiar. Why else would we sing "Silent Night," an Austrian folk melody with the simplest of texts from the 19th century? Because it fits, and because if we don't sing it, it isn't Christmas, somehow.

Finally, choral music and choral singing are the most easily accessible forms of music-making we know. There's nothing imposing or threatening about them. It's not like listening to an orchestra playing a concerto, or an organ recital. It's just a bunch of people who feel like opening their mouths and singing together. It doesn't get much more human and much more solidarity-driven than that.

NBCDFW: As a composer, what is the greatest challenge of writing music for the season?

BH: What's difficult is to write music that presents an unbelievable truth—the Incarnation and the invasion of our world by divine love—in a way that's fresh and honest. There is a lot of sentimental Christmas music out there already, and most composers run away from creating more of it as fast as they can. But that leaves them with a challenge of saying something new and fresh in ways that are still approachable by performers and audiences alike. The other challenge here, of course, is that there are many small chimneys into which a composer can retreat. Writing something in Latin, for example. Writing a carol arrangement, for another. As a composer, it's easy to choose the quick approach at Christmas, but is that honest? And does that reach the hearts of people who need healing at this time of year?

NBCDFW: Why is Marjorie Pickthall's "A Child's Song of Christmas" a good complement to "A Visit from St. Nicholas?"

BH: Clement Clarke Moore's "A Visit from St. Nicholas" opens in silence and stillness. The first eight lines offer images of warmth and waiting. How many of us, I wonder, have memories that involve sitting on the floor in our Christmas pajamas, surrounded by brothers, sisters, and cousins, along with a host of parents, aunts, and uncles while listening intently to grandpa reading this story? It's that sense of gathering, of waiting, of eager silence, and of love that drew me to "A Child's Song of Christmas". While the words may be new to many, the story is one we all know intimately. What allows the two to work in concert is that both are intimate texts about love, community, and hope.

Photo 3 of Verdigris Ensemble Christmas concert 2017_photo by Dickie Hill
Dickie Hill
Ornaments hang during a Verdigris Ensemble Christmas concert at Royal Lane Baptist Church.

NBCDFW: What is your approach to putting this poem to music? What do you hope your piece evokes?

BH: Any time I set a text to music I start by living with the words themselves. In this case, I read the poem over and over again until I could close my eyes and imagine every detail down to the tiniest stock of hay. Pickthall's poem offers an ever-expanding landscape, first focused on the Child wrapped in a blanket, then above to the pigeons in the air, beyond to the sun shining across the sky before turning heavenward to the host of angels singing to all below. In attempt to capture this splendor, I chose to compose a work that begins as a lullaby - simple, new, and yet distantly familiar. As the focus of the text widens, so too does the scope of the music: melodies rise and divide, harmonies deepen and grow richer. Ultimately, I hope the work evokes a sense of belonging while offering warmth, love, grace, and thanksgiving.

Verdigris Ensemble's "Twas the Night Before Christmas" concert will be performed on December 6 and 8 at Royal Lane Baptist Church in Dallas and December 7 at Northridge Presbyterian Church in Dallas.

MORE: VerdigrisMusic.org

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