Coro Vivo Ottawa Christmas Concert – Tony’s notes

Imagine a sere, hard-scrabble hillside outside of Bethlehem more than two millennia ago. Imagine a moonless night unsullied by industry, a gloom as dark as sin. Now, look up.

The sky above Judea when Herod I was the client king of Rome would have been magnificent by modern standards. Not just pinpricks of light in vaguely recognizable patterns, but billions of stars, literally a galaxy: our Milky Way. You might say that the light of these stars was a response to the darkness; in bright daylight they were unseen, seemingly nonexistent.

In the Christian tradition, the messiah is a response to the moral murk enveloping humankind. Jesus is described  as “the Light that shineth in the darkness,” in the gospel of St. John. It is not surprising, then, that lights in the night sky play a significant role in the story of the nativity (the star that guided the Magi to the manger, the radiance that shone around the herald angels), and have played a part in the Christmas celebration ever since.

Many faiths and cultures celebrate light as the nights grow darker and colder. The menorah of Hanukkah, the diya lamps of Diwali and even the Yule log of pre-Christian European traditions express sentiments akin to those of a brightly lit Christmas tree.

In a world still circumscribed by a pandemic, the voices we raise tonight are like stars, little pinpricks of hope when weariness and dismay seem more likely responses. Tonight we sing of the stars and of Christmas in defiance of adversity.


  The composer of our first piece is no stranger to celestial bodies. Gustav Holst is best known for his orchestral suite The Planets, but tonight we sing his 1910 fantasy Christmas Day, a stirring arrangement of three traditional carols: Good Christian Men, Rejoice, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen and the lesser-known Come Ye Lofty, Come Ye Lowly. Listen, too, for the strains of The First Nowell woven into the fabric of the work.

Star-gazing can seem like a sacrament, even to the non-religious. The night sky inspires both awe and tranquility. Our next piece, Night on a Starry Hill, by Ottawa composer Matthew Emery, is a recent setting of the early 20th-century poem Finis, by Canadian poet Marjorie Pickthall. The song’s sonorous ebb and flow frame three verses that sum up a contented life leading to a “night on a starry hill, and the road’s ending.”

Night on a Starry Hill is followed by David Wilcocks’s arrangement of a carol composed in the early 1920s, about the same time Pickthall wrote Finis. The lively melody of Ding Dong! Merrily on High is derived from a Renaissance dance tune, but the words, by composer George Ratcliffe Woodward, express the joyful noise ringing out in heaven and on earth upon the birth of Jesus.

In our next song, the night is not so clamorous, though still filled with music. Canadian composer Larry Nickel found inspiration in a verse from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, The Day is Done: “And the night shall be filled with music, and the cares that infest the day shall fold their tents… and silently steal away.” The star-studded night soothes the soul, as do Nickel’s long, overlapping choral lines.


We resume with John Rutter’s arrangement of the hymn, Lord of the Dance, written in 1963 by English folk musician Sydney Carter. It tells the story of Jesus, in the first-person, as a long and ultimately triumphant dance. Fittingly, the music comes from a religious sect for whom dance was a form of worship, the United Society of Believers, commonly know as Shakers. The original Shaker song, Simple Gifts, was written in 1848.

The pagan celebration of light in a dark season is the focus of our next piece, written by Kim Baryluk, founding member of  the Winnipeg folk group, the Wyrd Sisters. Solstice Carole invites listeners to gather around a fire on the longest night of the year and “dance ‘neath the stars.” An a cappella arrangement for women only, its harmonies will stir your soul.

The women are again on their own to close the first half of our concert. The Dawn is Not Distant combines the words from another Longfellow poem, The Musician’s Tale, with a passage from Genesis in the Latin translation. Alberta-born composer Christine Donkin sees the light from the stars as hope for a new day.


We begin the second half with a setting of O Magnum Mysterium, a traditional Christmas Matins response which marvels at the presence of lowly farm animals at the birth of Jesus. César Alejandro Carillo, one of Venezuela’s foremost composers and arrangers, created this resonant arrangement.

Next on the program  is We Are Stars, and Winnipeg composer and music teacher Kenley Kristofferson has this to say about his composition: “From the calcium in our bones to cobalt in our mountains, all things are connected through a common solar origin.”  The work is a hauntingly beautiful science lesson, reminding us that we are, literally, stardust.

If we are one with the universe, our part in it is only transitory, however. Such is the message of our next piece, Nothing Gold, whose text is drawn from the Robert Frost poem, Nothing Gold Can Stay. It is composed by Ontario music educator Benjamin Bolden.

Blue stars, science tells us, are the biggest and brightest in the galaxy, producing as much as one million times the energy of our Sun. So it is is fitting that Montreal composer and conductor Claudel Callender should describe a blue star leading us to the manger, in his melodic modern carol. L’étoile bleue.


We continue with an arrangement of the Austrian carol Still, Still, Still, by the late English choirmaster Philip Ledger. It is essentially a lullaby, describing the infant Jesus safe and warm in his mother’s arms on the cold, dark night of his birth.

Coro Vivo Ottawa is particularly proud of the provenance of the selection that follows, an arrangement of While Shepherd’s Watch Their Flock, the only Christmas hymn approved by the Church of England before the late 18th century. This version was arranged by Ottawa’s Paul Sales, former music director of the First United Church in Ottawa and a longtime and stalwart member of Coro Vivo’s tenor section. (Acknowledge Paul).

Next we have a 21st-century setting of the well-known text, In the Bleak Mid-Winter by Victorian poet Christina Rosetti. A soothing and tranquil arrangement by British composer and arranger Bob Chilcott perfectly serves Rosetti’s recounting of Christ’s humble birth.


We  conclude tonight’s concert with John Rutter’s joyous Christmas hymn, Star Carol, which features the refrain “See his star shining bright in the sky this Christmas night.”  We suggest as you leave the church tonight, as you venture into the cold and dark, you take the time to look up  — in wonder.

Thank you