Arts Listings

Reflections on Holiday Music

By Ken Bullock
Tuesday December 23, 2008 - 10:40:00 AM

Holiday music, usually canned, has become the audible public hallmark of the season, with all the homogenized commercialism this time of year.  

Here are a few off-the-cuff reflections by some local people in the music business on holiday sounds, good and bad: 

• Daniell Revenaugh, concert pianist and founder of the Busoni Society: 

“A holiday concert in a church, with holiday colors, or singing carols at home, which people did up until World War II, is fine. But I abhor the way it starts right after Halloween now. Its omnipresence becomes annoying. The tunes become parodies of themselves; it degrades the concept of Christmas—and certainly degrades the appreciation of music.  

“The way it blares out in stores, like over a loudspeaker, is ridiculous. It would be interesting to follow a given person through the course of their day this time of year and see how many times they listen to a particular carol—and whether it reminds them of memories of their childhood, or if they’re just gradually desensitized? That is, unless you find someone who likes hearing ‘Silent Night’ in the elevator of the Bel Air Sands Hotel at two in the morning after parking your car in the garage, as once happened to me.  

Music should be elevating, not elevator-ing! Going into my local 7/11 to see if I’ve won the lottery, then flee, I’m subject to an electric eye that plays the first five notes of Mozart’s Symphony in G minor, with no resolution. It’s debilitating to the victim of it—and suppose you had to work in that store? We’re stuck with so many things anyway, why do we have to be stuck with somebody’s idea of music? I don’t mind the Salvation Army bell, but I don’t want the guy to sing! Anyway, after the oral surgeon quoted his price, my favorite holiday song this year is ‘All I Want for Christmas Are My Two Front Teeth’!”  

• Charles Amirkhanian, founder of Other Minds new music series and former KPFA programmer:  

“I was young when LPs first came out, and some re-releases have made me realize how very taken I’ve been with performances and arrangements of what’s not the conventional Christmas music ... things from RCA, Robert Shaw chorales, obscure hymns ... and Spanish music, and other nationalities on Musical Heritage ... there’s so much more than ‘Deck the Halls.’ We forget what a rich variety of music’s been written around the season. The Christmas Cantata of Honnegger’s, a not very well-known collage of carols, with full orchestra and choruses ... Oh—and that piece done by The Residents I used to play on KPFA on seven-inch 45, ‘Santa Dog,’ with the words ‘Santa Dog’s a Jesus Freak’ over and over!” 

• David Parr, director of the Christmas Revels at the Oakland Scottish Rites Theater:  

“Carols like ‘The 12 Days of Christmas’ or our Mummer’s Song—like Father Christmas at the end of the Mummer’s Play—‘May there be a pig in your poke/May there be a pudding in your pot’ kind of thing, don’t exactly mean what they might sound like today, an incitement to shopping, but reflect an appreciation and awareness of the bounty of the world around us--a truly festive holiday spirit!” 

• Ronn Guidi, founder of the Oakland Ballet Company and the Ronn Guidi Foundation:  

“What surprised me a few years ago was finding out that Adolphe Adam, the composer of Giselle [1844], that great Romantic ballet, also wrote ‘O Holy Night.’ [’Minuit, chretiens!’—1847]” 

• Michael Morgan, conductor of the Oakland East Bay Symphony and Festival Opera (after chuckling that Ronn Guidi’s remark had never occurred to him): 

“As an outside choice, the only holiday song I really like these days isn’t on the festive side at all, but more melancholy— ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,’ from Meet Me in St. Louis, written by a friend of mine, Hugh Martin, who’s 94, living in San Diego. We met through mutual friends; he’s the last one that generation of Hollywood composers alive—and makes a whole living from that one song. After this wild rollercoaster year of 2008, it’s far more appropriate a holiday song than the rest. Next year has to be better!” 

• Mz. Dee, Jazz and R&B singer:  

“What I dislike is the dang ‘Jingle Bells!’ Drives me nuts! The limited, fake, not-real drone of Christmas music. Somebody’s in the studio, shakin’ these silly bells! It’s weird. You hear it too much—then, after Christmas, it’s gone. A wave came in, then went out. We need good music—every day—to make us feel good!”