Carols & Cantatas

By Maggie Symington, Concentus member

The second time I sang Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols was in 1984 with the New Amsterdam Singers (NAS), in NYC. Also on the program was a work I hadn’t heard before but I loved so much I practically memorized it: Daniel Pinkham’s Christmas Cantata. Since I don’t intend to sing in a mixed chorus again, I never thought I’d have the opportunity to sing the Pinkham again, but I certainly hoped for another shot at the Britten. As luck would have it, not only has Gwen Gassler, Concentus’ conductor, programmed the Britten for our upcoming holiday concert, she also found a women’s arrangement of the Pinkham! So 32 years later, I’ll have the opportunity to sing both pieces again, and again on the same program.

As I discovered at our first rehearsal of the Britten, I had apparently mis-learned a couple of passages. The alto section of NAS was larger than all of Concentus, so my errors then weren’t noticeable, but they would be now, so I promise to learn the right notes! Concentus has added some new young singers, who are experiencing this ethereal piece for the first time, and they've already expressed their joy, even though they still haven't had the pleasure of putting it together with the harp.

First rehearsal with our harpist

In my opinion, the Christmas Cantata is too short (8-10 minutes, depending on the conductor), because it’s such a rousing piece. There’s just something about brass at the holidays! Curiously, Pinkham, who created the three-part arrangement in 2000 near the end of his life, chose to simplify the choral lines, and much of the choral color has actually been reduced from four to two. Most of the richness is still audible in the instrumentation, so an audience won’t miss any of the complex harmonies. Apparently some of the original dynamic nuances were also discarded in a revised SATB version. Was that the composer’s intent, or a publishing oversight? We’ll never know.

I’m looking forward to being able to perform both of these works twice, since Concentus has two holiday performances. It will be bittersweet, however, since this will possibly be the last time I will have the opportunity to participate in a performance of either piece.

Posted: November 16, 2016


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