Mark Ball, director of music for Village Presbyterian Church, understands that the holiday season, filled with twinkling Christmas lights, also has its shadows.
St. Luke in his Nativity story relates the pathos of a homeless couple desperately searching for a place where an expectant mother can give birth.
There’s even downright terror when the innocent babes of Bethlehem are massacred en masse.
It’s a story that could be taken from today’s headlines, and that’s why it still resonates so much today, especially with those who have ever felt lonely, cold and afraid.
The Village Choir and Orchestra will present its annual Christmas program “Tidings of Joy” at 3 and 6 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 21 at Village Presbyterian Church. Although joy is what the concert is all about, Ball wants to give that joy a deeper meaning.
“You can’t just celebrate tidings of happiness and joy and baby Jesus if you’re not willing to look at the darkness,” Ball said.
“I don’t want to deny celebrating the joy of the season. I think it’s a wonderful gift, but it only has integrity if you look at the darkness. The first Christmas is a story of homelessness and poverty and shame. There’s so much to the story that gives it richness if you look at the whole thing. It’s not just ‘Jingle Bells.’”
Ball has carefully chosen music that brings out the deeper meaning of the Christmas story. The works include everything from traditional carols to selections from rarely heard oratorios.
Matthew Christopher Shepard, associate director of music for Village Presbyterian, will conduct the first half of the program.
“As always, one piece flows right into the next,” Ball said. “You’ll hear some instrumental things like the fast movement from (Antonio Vivaldi’s) ‘Winter.’ I’m working on an arrangement of a beautiful hymn ‘O Lord, How Shall I Meet You,’ and we’re singing this gorgeous setting of ‘O Magnum Mysterium’ by the hot new Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo. We have just fallen in love with this piece. It is so beautiful. His music is atmospheric and haunting like John Tavener.”
The first half of the program includes Geoff Wilcken’s arrangement of “What Child Is This?,” which the congregation is invited to take part in singing, and English composer Gerald Finzi’s “In Terra Pax,” which weaves together Robert Bridges’ poem “Christmas Eve 1913” and St. Luke’s Nativity story.
“After intermission I take over conducting responsibilities, and we sing this piece called ‘Walk in the Light’ by Andre Thomas. It’s inspired by spirituals and urban gospel. It’s a lot of fun, and Elisa Bickers (principal organist for Village Presbyterian) rocks out on the piano. After that we tell the story of Christmas Eve 1914. The theme here is Christmas in time of conflict.”
One hundred years ago this year on Christmas Eve, a truce was declared by the men in the trenches, not the presidents and generals. British and German soldiers in Belgium heard one another singing “Silent Night” and tentatively made their way across no-man’s land to exchange greetings, food and cigarettes and to take part in soccer games. Similar Christmas truces took place between German and French troops.
“‘Silent Night’ will be sung from three different corners of the church by three young men in French, German and English,” Ball said. “The three young men will move very slowly toward each other at the center of the room, where they’ll sing one verse of ‘Silent Night’ together and then disperse, symbolizing what happened that Christmas Eve.
“It’s a remarkable story. It just proves the point that it’s not the people who do the dying in the war that want the war. It’s other powerful forces that are always looking to make some war happen.”
Ball will also lead the choir in four carols with special meaning for the World War I centennial. They were arranged by Ralph Vaughan Williams for a small chorus of men who were fighting in the trenches on the western front, where the English composer was also serving. According to Ball, these carols have never been recorded and have almost certainly never been performed in Kansas City.
The concert will end with a movement from Vaughan Williams’ anti-war cantata “Dona Nobis Pacem” and Wilcken’s arrangement of “O Come, All Ye Faithful” to be sung by the Village Choir and the audience.
It is to Ball’s great credit that every year he puts together a Christmas concert that is enjoyable and heartwarming but at the same time challenging on so many levels. But joy is always at the heart of “Tidings of Joy.” In spite of the evil and darkness that cast their pall on the world, joy is triumphant, and, as Ball says, “music and the spirit of Christmas can overcome the darkness, or at least it can push back against the darkness a little bit.”
“We end on a really up note and strong,” Ball said. “The Vaughan Williams ‘Dona Nobis Pacem’ is huge, with 120 singers and an orchestra going at it. It’s very affirming that the day will come when war will end.
“That’s the theological underpinnings of our faith, that there will come a day when nation will not lift up sword against nation. We just have to keep working for it.”
The concert is free, but an offering will be taken for Cross-Lines, a charity based in Kansas City, Kan. Cross-Lines helps disadvantaged people pull themselves out of poverty through job programs and training. Cross-Lines also provides help for immediate needs, such as paying for heating bills, food and clothing. It was founded more than 50 years ago by a group of community leaders, including Robert H. Meneilly, the founding pastor of Village Presbyterian Church.
Sunday, Dec. 21, at 3 and 6 p.m. Village Presbyterian Church, 6641 Mission Road, Prairie Village. Free. villagepres.org.
Spire Chamber Ensemble: “Messiah”
Kansas City can’t get enough of George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah.”
The Kansas City Symphony’s three recent performances were sellouts, and the singalong “Messiah” at Grace & Holy Trinity Cathedral always packs them in.
Now the Spire Chamber Ensemble’s period instrument “Messiah” is establishing itself as an annual event almost guaranteed to fill Helzberg Hall.
The ensemble will perform “Messiah” Tuesday, Dec. 23, and tickets are getting scarce. At the time of writing, seats are already 85 percent sold.
“This will be our fourth ‘Messiah,’ so it’s neat that we’re starting a tradition for families and offering a little different take,” Ben Spalding, conductor of the ensemble, said.
Spalding’s take is indeed different from other Kansas City “Messiahs.” While the Kansas City Symphony uses a huge chorus, Spalding’s choir comprises only 16 singers. According to Spalding, the first performance of “Messiah” in Dublin in 1742 had a choir of only 12.
“Imagine ‘Messiah’ with only 12 singers,” he said. “It’s kind of amazing. We have 16 singers in the choir, and those 16 voices will step out and sing the solo parts, and then step back into the choir. We have the best choir we’ve ever had in terms of quality. They really are great soloists, but they’re also adept at making great choral music as well. So they can change their voice to fit into a choral ensemble at the drop of a hat.”
The other thing that makes Spire’s “Messiah” unusual in Kansas City is its use of authentic period instruments. Spalding is flying in some of the finest period instrument players in North America to take part in the performance.
“We wanted to make our own baroque orchestra, so it’s called the Spire Baroque Orchestra,” Spalding said. “It’s an entire baroque orchestra, so we’ll have all gut strings, natural oboes, natural bassoons, natural trumpets, kettledrums instead of timpani. It’s exciting to hear the nuance and color of these instruments and what they bring in terms of clarity to ‘Messiah.’”
After four years, Spalding has not lost his enthusiasm for Handel’s masterpiece. Indeed, each year he continues to find new felicities in the work, which he performs in its entirety.
“I’m always looking for ways to help audiences hear ‘Messiah’ totally different than in years past,” Spalding said. “This year, the things that are slow are going to be really slow and thought-provoking and drawn out. The things that are fast are probably going to be the fastest that Kansas City audiences will have ever heard them. We’re taking a couple of movements at what we call Ferrari speed. It’s the fastest car and it just goes.
“Mozart said that when Handel chooses to, he strikes like a thunderbolt. That’s what we’re trying to do. We’re always trying to keep the audience at the edge of their seat. They may have heard ‘Messiah’ many times, but we want it to be a night full of surprises.“
7 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 23. Helzberg Hall, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. $20-$35. 816-994-7222 or kauffmancenter.org.
Youth Symphony of Kansas City
The Youth Symphony of Kansas City recently received a special honor.
Out of more than 300 applicants, the Youth Symphony’s senior-most orchestra, the Symphony Orchestra, along with 44 other orchestras, was chosen to perform at the International Band and Orchestra Conference’s Midwest Clinic in Chicago on Dec. 19.
The ensemble also received a local honor. Mayor Sly James declared the week of Dec. 7-14 Youth Symphony Week in Kansas City.
“Being accepted here (at the Midwest Clinic) is a rite of passage that represents a certain level of artistic attainment,” said Steven D. Davis, Symphony Orchestra conductor. “We know in Kansas City what a treasure the Youth Symphony is, and this is a way for us to share that with the entire country and world.”
Patrick Neas is program director for RadioBach.com. You can reach him at email@example.com