Of all the holiday music traditions in Utah, one of the oldest is the annual pair of concerts by the Salt Lake Children's Choir.
For more than 25 years, the choir has been entertaining audiences with a wide range of music that spans the Renaissance to modern hymns and songs to celebrate the season. "We have a tradition to maintain, and sometimes it's a challenge to keep our programs fresh," said founder and director Ralph B. Woodward.
The choir will perform its annual concerts next Saturday and Sunday in what has become its home during the holidays, the Cathedral of the Madeleine. Woodward said that it's wonderful being able to hold the concerts in the cathedral. "It's such an opportunity to have this music and to sing it in this edifice. It gives you a sense of grandeur."
The program that Woodward has chosen for this year continues the tradition he established almost from the beginning. In his opinion, no holiday concert would be complete without Palestrina. "I have a predilection for early music. I feel disappointed if we don't have some early music on our programs. I really love Palestrina's music. He is a very methodical composer and concerned with structure over for expression, but I think we respond almost automatically to symmetry in music."
The concert will open with Palestrina's brief but jubilant "Osanna in Excelsis" and include another piece, a "Benedictus" from one of his masses.
For the first time in several years, Woodward has also programmed Mozart's "Laudate Dominum." "I've only done it twice in the past, because you need the right voice for the solo. I wouldn't do it if I didn't think we could do it justice. It's so beautiful with the right voice."
As far as programming is concerned, Woodward said he has a few pieces he does every year. "Some I have to do every year, and some we recycle every two or three years. And I'm always looking for new stuff."
Among the former are Michael Praetorius' "Lo, How A Rose E'er Blooming" and Henri Busser's "Berceuse." Woodward said that "Berceuse" was a song his mother used to sing to an English translation his father made.
Years ago, when the choir was still new and Woodward was searching for material to use, he asked his mother if she still had a copy of it. She did, and at the next choir rehearsal he took it along. "I wanted to see if the kids could sing a high B flat."
They could, and he made an arrangement suitable for children's voices. "It's a real treasure. The kids love it." And since then, it's been featured at every Christmas concert.
His love for older holiday music notwithstanding, Woodward takes great pains to find newer works to include on his programs. Among these is an evocative setting by Bill Tamblyn of verses by St. Bernard of Clairvaux, "Jesu, Delightful to the Mind." "It's a very lovely setting. Around here, it's better known as 'Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee.' We're doing a different translation (by Michael Hodgetts)."
Tamblyn's setting uses only a few of the 40 verses that St. Bernard wrote. "The music Tamblyn wrote is quite mystical sounding. You get a feeling of antiquity, along with a more modern feeling. The combination of these elements speaks to me personally. It's a very spiritual piece."
The program also includes "This Little Babe" and "Balulalow" from Benjamin Britten's "A Ceremony of Carols;" Juan Orrego-Salas' "Danza" and "Aleluya;" and Gustav Holst's arrangement of "Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence."
There will also be quite a few songs that the audience will be more familiar with. Among these are "Bring a Torch;" "Infant Holy, Infant Lowly;" "Il Est Ne;" and "Hark Now, O Shepherds."
One song that Woodward is especially looking forward to doing is an arrangement of the old German carol "Susani" that his father, Ralph Woodward, Sr., did with his a cappella choir some 40 years ago. "We did it about seven years ago. We haven't done it since, because it has a flute part and we haven't had a flutist in our choir all this time until this year. It's a beautiful arrangement, and it's going to add a very nice element to the program."
And true to tradition, the concerts will end with an audience sing-along.
"We have a well-rounded program this year," Woodward said. "It's going to be appealing on many different levels."
Organist Kenneth Udy and harpist Lisa Rytting will accompany the choir.The concerts will be recorded by KBYU-FM for future broadcast. The station will also broadcast last year's program twice in the coming weeks, on Dec. 19 at 1 p.m. and again on Dec. 22 at 9 p.m.
If you go
What: Salt Lake Children's Choir
Where: Cathedral of the Madeleine, 331 E. South Temple
When: Saturday and Sunday, 8 p.m.
How much: FreeWeb: www.childrensing.com