Wednesday, December 15, 2010

God bless Robert Shaw

I truly love Christmas and Christmas songs, both sacred and secular. Some of my dearest childhood memories are of turning out the lamps in the living room, plugging in the lights on the Christmas tree, and singing along with Mitch Miller or Robert Shaw, the discs spinning on my parents' stereo. Mitch, with his goatee and Santa hat, was quite handy to have around because the album sleeve came with copies of the lyrics - knowing that the day would come when I would need to know all of the words to "Must be Santa," I diligently studied the words.

Here in Atlanta, the go-to radio station for Christmas music was the old Peach 94.9. Their highest ratings were from Thanksgiving to Christmas, when they played a divine and diverse selection of sacred and silly songs. From der Bingle's "White Christmas" to an enchanting version of "Toy Trains" by Nana Mouskouri, to the Centurymen's "Beautiful Star of Bethlehem," the selections were soothing and inspiring and responsible for neverending wells of Christmas cheer. The ratings boost didn't help the station, however, the station is now "The Bull," dispensing country music 24/7.

If I had to pick one song that just makes my holiday, it would have to be "Betelehemu," a Nigerian choral work arranged by Wendell Whalum, long-time director of the Morehouse Glee Club. (Morehouse is the historically black college in Atlanta, whose famous alumni include Martin Luther King, Jr. and Spike Lee). You may be familiar with the Morehouse Glee Club - they perform throughout the country. (If perhaps you're not, then you're in for a treat.)

I first heard "Betelehemu" at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus' annual Christmas concert, the signature work and Christmas gift from the legendary Robert Shaw. That was a stage filled with as much musical talent as you'll ever find - the ASO, the chorus, the Morehouse men, and Robert Shaw, looking for all the world like a conductor should. Barrel-chested, dashing in his white tie and tails, turning toward the audience after the traditional opener, "O Come, O Come Emmanuel," his face flushed from the lights and energy, shock of white hair falling over his brow, and quoting from the Gospels. The son of a preacher, with a preacher's stentorian tones, Shaw had his own pulpit and ministry, the pursuit of perfection in choral singing. The Atlanta Symphony chorus and the Morehouse men exemplified Shaw's ideals.

Midway through the Christmas program, the musicians and singers looked to stage left with expectation as the Morehouse Glee Club delivered its rendition of "Betelehemu." It starts out with traditional African percussion and near the end, a solo. Watching people experience Betelehemu for the first time is fascinating. Here you are in Symphony Hall, soaking up the sacred, expected songs from the Anglo-American catalog - First Noel's  and Fum Fum Fum and some a-wassailing and then the Morehouse men start up with drums and singing words in an unfamiliar language. It doesn't matter that I don't know the Nigerian language, I understand this song.
    "We are glad that we have a Father to trust.
    We are glad that we have a Father to rely upon
    Where was Jesus born?
    Where was He born?
    Bethlehem, the city of wonder.
    That is where the Father was born for sure.
    Praise, praise, praise be to Him.
    We thank thee, we thank Thee, we thank Thee for this day,
    Gracious Father.
    Praise, praise, praise be to Thee,
    Merciful Father."

( "Betelehemu"  (Olatunji, Via) - arr. Wendall Whalum)

It's not too difficult to put into words what I like about this song. It's joy. From-the-tips-of-my-toes to the top of my head joy. Hearing "Betelehemu" seals my faith - the worldwide community of believers, past and present, who know the saving power of the love of God. The longing for a Savior and the thankfulness for answered prayers. It's significant that it's a choral work, performed by a group, not individuals, who have to work together to sing it right. It's not about the diva who can knock your socks off when she hits the high note.
I hope you like this clip on Youtube - it's the Morehouse Glee Club performing "Betelehemu" at 1991's Kennedy Center Honors for Robert Shaw. It's nice to see Shaw's reaction to the performance. (Mr. Shaw died in January 1999, but the ASO Christmas program that he created is an Atlanta tradition, still performed each Christmas season.)

Please tell me your favorite Christmas songs, sacred or silly, I'd love to know. And may God bless you with inspiring music this Christmas.

A longer version of this story appears on my Open Salon blog.

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