Whether it’s the shopping or the soppy movies, electric strands of light wrapped around trees or candles in a row, the winter holiday season is only full swing when the choirs start to sing. You can’t escape their jolly cheer. Viva La Musica!, the Peninsula chorus led by vivacious redhead Shulamit “Shu” Hoffmann, decided to avoid Handel’s Messiah this year and present a more recent work by Karl Jenkins (born 1944).
Stella Natalis (Birth Star), composed in 2009, is a collection of Christmas song settings from around the world set in Jenkins’ typically intense style. Good composers have an instantly recognizable sound. But it’s one thing to have a unique musical language and another to write the exact same rhythms over and over again. Jenkins uses the ostinato like no other, rivaling Philip Glass or Carl Orff (see Carmina Burana) in incessant repetition. An array of metallic percussion instruments from Glockenspiel to Marimba add tinkling bell-like accents for instant Christmassy feel. At the same time, the trance-like repeats in the orchestra and the sweeping lines in the chorus give the piece a primal feel, with big blocks of harmony and broad strokes rather than frequently changing harmony of conventional Western choir music. Over the jittery and often intentionally uneven rhythms, the chorus sings in languages that include English, Latin, Sanskrit, and Zulu. Soprano Shelly Welch is featured in some of the more tender moments of the almost hour-long composition and she also belts it in also in a hoedown-like movement entitled Be Merry.
Stella Natalis has its own dedicated website, www.jenkinsstellanatalis.com, where visitors can preview the music for free. Hoffmann is a fan of Jenkins– this is the fourth of his composition in Viva‘s repertoire and she has written about him in her dissertation. Hoffmann describes the piece as “zesty and entertaining” in the program notes. Trumpet soloist Jason Park is featured in fanfares throughout the piece and also in Leroy Anderson’s ever-popular Sleigh Ride, where the trumpet is used to somehow imitate the sound of a neighing horse with remarkable accuracy. An 11-person string orchestra and piano accompanist complete the ensemble.
The concert will also include other holiday favorites: an interesting version of “God Rest Ye” and a Baroque-style rendition of “Joy to The World.” For those shower sopranos and bathroom baritones among you, or if you ever wanted to join a chorus in song there will be a chance to air out your vocal chords in a classic Christmas carols sing-along. There’s even a token Chanukah piece.
Last Sunday’s performance at the Transfiguration Church in San Mateo was a festive success. The concert will be repeated next Sunday, Dec. 16 at 4 PM (Beethoven’s birthday!) at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church 174 Clinton St., Redwood City.