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Getting in the Spirit: Alt-Christmas

On Sunday evening, there were two Christmas concerts after my own heart. This is not really a review, because of my friendly connection to the performers, but more an appreciation. First, Jeremy Filsell gave an organ recital at Washington National Cathedral, with a rare complete performance of Olivier Messiaen's La Nativité du Seigneur. It is a fairly youthful work, composed when Messiaen was still in his 20s, but it still hits all the hallmarks of the composer's intensely mystical style, just with a few more plain triads, fewer hallucinatory bird songs, and some unexpected humor. Filsell chose some exciting registrations: glowing stained-glass colors, whirring intense sounds, brassy theater organ fanfare, ominous low reeds clustered like bagpipes. In a pithy presentation on the work beforehand, Filsell explained some of the pictorial devices Messiaen embedded in the score, and many of them popped out in the performance, like the pastoral cantillation of the shepherds, the crunchy dissonant chords in time-suspending rhythmic patterns (hints of the Quatuor pour la fin du temps), the chaotic dancing of the angels, the heavy-footed slog of the wise men's camels. While parts of the piece are slow, even spare, there are some technical challenges, played here as thrilling toccatas.

Later that evening, it was out to the wilds of Virginia with my passport in hand for the second Christmas concert from the local all-male choir known as the Suspicious Cheese Lords. The venue kind enough to host the ensemble was Holy Spirit Catholic Church, one of those wood-and-carpet mid-20th-century buildings, with an acoustic that sounds like a living room. Still, this concert gets high marks for programming, proof yet again that Christmas programming really does not need to regurgitate Messiah and countless other tired pieces. The Lords, as is their wont, fed us with mostly unknown Renaissance motets, by the likes of Gregorio Turini, Leonhard Paminger, Melchor Robledo, Ivo de Vento, Dominique Phinot (an expansive Ave Maria, somber except for a glorious opening up at the words "O mater dei"), Giovanni Nanino, and Francesco de Layolle, all worth knowing.

More recent pieces were just as alluring, including the moody Christmas processional Voici la nuit (featured in the splendid film Of Gods and Men), Stephen Sametz's catchy, hocket-like Noel!, the austere American hymn Shepherds Rejoice (from The Sacred Harp), and the magnificent Three Kings by Canadian composer Healey Willan, who is always worth discovering further. Russell Weismann, organist and Associate Director of Music at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception (where I sang for many years in the choir), added some unusual organ selections to the mix, from the theatrical use of bells and Zimbelstern in Richard Purvis's setting of Greensleeves to the crazy toccata of Keith Chapman's take on Bring a Torch, Jeannette, Isabella.

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