The annual “Christmas With the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra” has been around in some form since the 1940s, when CBS radio launched a national, 90-minute program called “Christmas With Robert Shaw.” Shaw devised a swift and flowing 80 minutes of music, divided into four 20-minute segments (separated by commercials).
The formula, a sort of substantive Christmas pops, transferred easily into the concert hall, retaining the mix of ancient carols, sacred classics, sugar-coated music of the season and a few sing-alongs. The four sections move from “Prophecy and Advent” to “The stable,” “Around the Christmas tree” and “Adoration.” Now conducted by ASO chorus director Norman Mackenzie, it remains one of the city’s premiere holiday pageants, for the often admirable quality of the performance and for bringing together communities that don’t visit one another’s homes often enough.
On Thursday night, the evening opened with “O Come, Emmanuel,” introduced by magic sparkles and bells from the percussion — transporting us to a snowy parallel Atlanta of our dreams. In Alice Parker’s soulful arrangement, the men in the chorus first sang the title words — so solid, so light — and immediately all cynical thoughts were banished.
At its best, the show was remarkably satisfying, even after years of hearing it. The a capella works, like Anton Bruckner’s “Virga Jesse floruit” (sung by the ASO Chorus) or Leonard de Paur’s arrangement of the spiritual “Oh, Po’ Little Jesus” (sung by the Morehouse College Glee Club, led by David Morrow), were tender and lovely, spiritual for reminding us of the humanity collected in the concert hall. Steven Sametz’ carol “Noel” was sung by the Morehouse men with rich, ear-tingling textures.
Actually, the cynicism was almost banished. While the Morehouse men seem never to give a poor performance, and the Gwinnett Young Singers (directed by Lynn Urda) radiate innocence and purity, the orchestra’s effort and attention fluctuated according to what was on their music stands. Thus the Praeludium from Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis” was handsomely dispatched, as was the slow movement from Vivaldi’s “Winter” Concerto, with the ASO’s still-new concertmaster, David Coucheron, as soloist. His tone was mellow, sweet and succulent, a very sensual sound. Even in their backing role for the Vivaldi, his colleagues were fully engaged. And Handel’s “Hallelujah” Chorus rarely fails to deliver.
But the band kicked their feet up and let routine settle in for the least compelling section, “Around the Christmas tree,” centered on the cloying bits from Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” (e.g. “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy”) and a slick medley of holiday tunes in an insufferably saccharine arrangement by Robert Russell Bennett. Truly, these Bennett arrangements, collected as “The Many Moods of Christmas,” are beneath the ASO’s dignity.
But the high points far eclipsed the weak parts. In “El Cant des Ocells,” cellist Daniel Laufer played the solo with songful melancholy. The chorus introduced “March of the Kings,” a medieval French carol with a familiar melody (in a Shaw-Parker arrangement), which was taken up by the orchestra — same tune — as the “Farandole” from Bizet’s “L’Arlesienne.” Mackenzie’s taut sense of rhythm and pacing, just a shade too fast for comfort, electrified the moment.
One of the most uplifting things about living in Atlanta is the annual Symphony Hall performance of “Betelehemu,” which is sung, danced and clapped by the Morehouse men. The carol has a fascinating history. Babatunde Olatunji and Wendell Whalum were members of the Morehouse Glee Club in the 1950s. Years later, after Whalum became the glee club’s director and Olatunji found a life as an African drummer based in New York, the two men collaborated on a carol, sung in the latter’s native Yoruba language of Nigeria. Tribal drums, tambourines and a cow bell added an improvisatory element, augmenting the singing, which starts as a low hum and builds to a frenzy. They perform “Betelehemu” at the annual Morehouse and Spelman colleges holiday show, but on stage with the ASO it’s an even more beautiful thing. In this context, this wonderful carol, and these student singers, are acknowledged as among the best of the city’s art.