Popular Christmas music has its place but not necessarily with the Salt Lake Children's Choir. So when the children present their annual holiday concerts, Ralph B. Woodward focuses on the season's rich European musical tradition.
"I resonate most with this music," Woodward said. "It can carry you to the heights and take you away from the mundane."
The Salt Lake Children's Choir will perform its Christmas program next Saturday and Sunday in the Cathedral of the Madeleine, at which the group has been a fixture every December since 1984, five years after Woodward founded the choir. Accompanying the choir will be harpist Lisa Rytting and organist Heidi Alley.
Programming a choral concert that doesn't feature a large-scale work can be a challenge, Woodward said. "All of these pieces we sing are short, so it can be difficult to program. And one has to find pieces that resound best in (the cathedral). But on the other hand, it's always refreshing to deal with works that get to the point fast."
Anyone who has attended the choir's holiday concerts knows there is a certain pattern to the program. And this year will be no exception. "We're going to follow the form we traditionally utilize and which audiences have come to expect," Woodward said. "We're going to start with two early polyphonic pieces, Palestrina's 'Gloria Patri' and a 16th-century German piece, 'Lobt Gott."'
The program will be predominantly European. "A large part of our ancestry, though not all, is from Europe, and I love to tap into that heritage."
Having said that, however, Woodward points out that the choir's holiday programs go beyond the realm of European art music and traditional songs. "I love to explore the expressions of culture from somewhat beyond that sphere."
Among pieces the choir will sing that lie outside the western European tradition is Pavel Chesnokov's "Cherubic Hymn," op. 9, no. 7. "It's from the Russian Orthodox tradition and a beautiful piece that we've done in the past."
Woodward also incorporates a number of songs from Latin America into his programs. Having traveled and lived there, he has a fondess for the music of the region.
The children will sing a piece from Chile, as well as one of Woodward's own compositions, which reflect the character of the music. "I borrowed a Latin American text to set it and based it on Andean sonorities. It conveys the atmosphere from that part of the world and the feeling of devotion you get in those places."
While most of the music the choir will sing next weekend consists of pieces that Woodward frequently programs, there will also be some works the group hasn't sung for a number of years. Among these is Franck's "Panis Angelicus."
Balancing that out will be several pieces Woodward has the choir sing every Christmas: "Lo How a Rose E'er Blooming," "Il Est Ne" and Henri Busser's "Berceuse." "'Berceuse' is a special piece for us. It's one of the highlights at our concerts, and we've done it every year since 1984."
Woodward has been busy the past few months preparing a CD of Christmas music. "This is an awfully good CD. The pieces were recorded at concerts in the cathedral that took place between 1998 and 2006. It has the same format as our concerts, and it's a pretty good representation of what we do. Every child who has been in the choir will relate to it." (The album will be ready in time for the concerts next month; phone 537-1412 for information on where to purchase the CD.)
After their cathedral performances, members of the choir will participate in Kurt Bestor's Christmas show in Abravanel Hall from Dec. 5-8. The Salt Lake Children's Choir and Bestor have a long relationship. "We've appeared in a number of his concerts and on his CDs, and we've done a lot of studio work with him," Woodward said.
Woodward and the choir are no strangers to the recording studio. Several years ago, someone representing Chuck Negron from the now-defunct rock band Three Dog Night called Woodward and said he had heard about the choir and wanted to use it. "(Negron) needed a children's choir and he had heard about us, and he had somehow heard an 'Allelujah' that I had written. He liked it and wanted to sing it." He did, and also put it on his album.
"We get around," Woodward said.KBYU-FM will broadcast last year's program twice next month, on Dec. 17 at 1 p.m. and Christmas Day at noon.
If you go . . .
What: Salt Lake Children's Choir; Ralph B. Woodward, director
Where: Cathedral of the Madeleine, 331 E. South Temple
When: Saturday and Dec. 2, 8 p.m.
How much: free