Music is the most joyful part of Christmas

After three very busy weeks in Jacksonville, I’m back in New York City. The air is crisp, and in the afternoons the parks are wonderfully quiet apart from the sound of leaves crackling underfoot. It’s the perfect atmosphere in which to think about the holidays.

For me, music has always been the most joyful part of Christmas. Growing up, December was a stream of carol services and evensongs, leading up to the thrilling Midnight Eucharist on Christmas Eve. I can remember my nervousness before singing the first verse of “Once in Royal David’s City” as a solo, candle in hand, from the back of the church when I was a small boy, and my fascination with the evocative archaic texts on which so much Christmas music is based. You may be familiar with what I’m describing from the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge, which is broadcast annually on NPR. This service, with its special festive mixture of antiquity, solemnity and joy, all captured in music, is the very definition of Christmas for me.

Stephen Cleobury rehearses the choir of King’s College, Cambridge in chapel before their annual Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols

For several years when I was a student, I scraped together money for Christmas presents by conducting amateur choral societies and orchestras in performances of Handel’s Messiah. Far from putting me off the masterpiece, the experience made me marvel at just how brilliant and indestructible it is! I can’t think of many other works that could survive such repetition and still amaze us with their power. I hope you’ll join us on Saturday, December 19 when we welcome back Michelle Merrill, assistant conductor of the Detroit Symphony, to lead the Jacksonville Symphony and chorus with a stellar team of soloists.

I never feel like the holidays are close until I hear the opening notes of Tchaikovsky’s magical ballet, The Nutcracker. Our assistant conductor, Nathan Aspinall will conduct the symphony in four performances between December 18 and 20.

Next week I’m off to Antwerp, Belgium, for a week of performances with the Royal Flemish Philharmonic. Then it’s back to Manhattan for holiday concerts with the New York Philharmonic and baritone Eric Owens. We’ll be performing snippets from one of my favourite operas, Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel. In Austria and Germany, this opera is played every Christmas, much the way we play The Nutcracker in America. Stay tuned…I hear a rumour this holiday tradition might be making its way to Jacksonville in the not-too-distant future.

I wish you all the happiest of holidays, and looking forward to seeing you when I’m back conducting the Jacksonville Symphony during the first week of January.

Reprinted with the kind permission of the Florida Times-Union.

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