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Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2009

Holiday Concerts By Early Music Now, Bel Canto Chorus

Classical Christmas celebrations in Milwaukee

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The great thing about Classical Music around the holidays is that there is just so much of it available, and none need fall into the dreaded schmaltz category (all too easy to do at Christmastime). Indeed, two local ensembles avoid the cheap stuff and go right for the luxuries of Christmas past.

Early Music Now has brought Anonymous 4 back to Milwaukee for their holiday-themed concert titled “The Cherry Tree.” As Anonymous 4’s Marsha Genensky and Susan Hellauer explain, “TheCherry Tree Carol…has flourished in oral tradition through the centuries and is still widely sung in both America and the British Isles.” The carol’s story is one in which “Joseph doubts the divine origin of Mary’s pregnancy; Jesus then miraculously speaks from within Mary’s womb, causing a cherry tree to bend and offer his mother its fruit.” The carol’s origins are in medieval Britain, and Anonymous 4 chose it as the central theme of their program, blending it—as they say—with “medieval ancestors of that story and other medieval British carols and British-rooted American songs and hymns,” all sung in their original Latin or Middle English. The four sections of the concert program variously include carols, folk hymns, ballads and sequences. Among these are the 15th-century Lullay My Child: This Ender Nithgt, Qui Creavit Celum (a carol of the nuns of Chester), as well as Prophetarum Presignata and Salve Mater Misericordie from 14th-century Ireland.

At the Chapel of St. Joseph Center on Dec. 12.

The Bel Canto Chorus’ holiday concert, “Christmas in the Basilica,” features music reaching as far back as the Renaissance. The Bel Canto Chorus, Bel Canto Boy Choir, Alleluia Ringers and organist John Behnke join forces for a program of carols, songs and hymns, including the serenely beautiful motet O Magnum Mysterium by Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611), Personent Hodie by Gustav Holst (1874-1934) and the immortal Silent Night by Franz Gruber (1787-1863). The concert opens with A Ceremony of Carols, Op. 28 by Benjamin Britten (1913-76), composed as he voyaged by sea from America to England in 1942, and a perennial Yuletide favorite in his native country.

One of the traditional hymns on the Bel Canto program is The Holly and the Ivy, the chorus of which perhaps best sums up all this exquisite holiday fare: “Oh the rising of the Sun, and the running of the deer, the playing of the merry organ, sweet singing in the choir.”

At St. Josaphat Basilica on Dec. 12-13.