The soft glow of candles bathes the chancel in gentle reverential light. The church is decorated for Christmas. Swags of cedar and pinecones drape the organ. Framed by evergreen boughs and bright red berries tumbling from a generous urn, singers and musicians gather in a circle on stage, beyond them, a deserted nave, row on row of shadowy pews, the dimensionless winter night.
Reprising a popular festive offering first presented in 1992, a venturesome cast of nimble early music specialists courtesy The Toronto Consort gathers once again, albeit in the digitally rendered haven of Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre this year, to share an evening of 16th century Christmas carols, dances, folk tunes and motets. Helmed by longtime Toronto Consort keyboard virtuoso/vocalist, Paul Jenkins, The Christmas Story glows with charm, a heartfelt portrait of an astonishing age buzzing with genius. And, not infrequently, whispers of muted fear.
This rich, unexpectedly enthralling Christmas Story surges with humanity, two discrete interwoven historical threads overlaying the traditional Christian chronicle of the Nativity.
A series of readings from the gospels of St. Matthew and St. Luke by Toronto Consort founding member, U of T professor emeritus of English and Medieval Studies David Klausner, provides compelling context. Sourced from the first printed Bible in English as translated from Greek and Hebrew by the brilliant Oxford-educated theologian William Tyndale, the birth of Jesus acquires an air of anxious drama in Klausner’s tense, measured account. Tyndale, a passionate believer in the need for direct common access to the living word of God, was executed in 1536 for violating Church precepts, his body burned to ash. Giving voice to the Christmas story or indeed any passages in the Bible in anything other than Latin was a highly dangerous undertaking as Klausner suggests in his gripping, masterfully fraught, Early Modern English-inflected narration.
Level two of The Christmas Story greatly expands time and place.
Unlike artistic development across the Channel, the English Renaissance was distinguished less by thrilling new perspectives in the visual arts, more by the stunning elevation of music and drama to new levels of excellence. Works by Continental masters on the order of Domenico Ghirlandaio, Sandro Botticelli and Peter Bruegel the Elder all found reasonable aesthetic equivalents in the intricate experiments in counterpoint and harmony of Anthony Holborne, William Byrd, and Thomas Tallis at home. Shakespeare and Ben Jonson added their own brand of theatrical magic. Vividly expressed by the art of the period, accompanying HD graphics form vibrant painterly interjections in this attractively packaged 80-minute on-line presentation, complimentary signposts to acutely exquisite audible statements of great beauty and vitality.
Launching the program on a collective vocal note, soprano Katherine Hill, alto Rebecca Claborn, tenor Paul Jenkins and bass Jesse Billett send John Browne’s intensely poignant anthem, Jesu mercy, how may this be, soaring, imparting a fine lustrous finish to the gleaming early polyphony.
A rather less complex but no less polished unattributed piece follows, Ah, my dear, ah, my dear son. Echoing the voices of Mary, Joseph and Jesus, soprano Michele DeBoer, Rebecca Claborn and tenor Cory Knight inject a note of visionary drama into the traditional Christmas story, the Virgin suddenly fearful for Her newborn, the Son of God heard consoling her as if in a dream.
Musical highlights are as affecting as they are numerous here.
Tenors Knight and Jenkins trade bouncy, light-hearted rhyming couplets in an irresistible rendition of English priest turned Continental exile Peter Philips’ Le bel ange du ciel, a light-hearted Christmas setting of a popular French folk song. Lutist Esteban La Rotta partners. The sudden segue to a traditional Gallic dance tune, Bransle de l’officiel — melody instantly recognizable as Ding dong! Merrily on high — performed with great spirit by flutist Alison Melville and hurdy-gurdy player Ben Grossman, comes by way of delightful surprise.
The 16th century carol, As I outrode this enderes night, trippingly sung by Claborn, Jenkins and Billett brings exciting news of shepherds and angels and a bright shining star.
Katherine Hill’s exceptionally touching Vieni, vieni caro, caretto (“Come, come my darling, my little darling”) gently speaks of a mother’s boundless love for her child, infinite and everlasting.
Final words fall to William Byrd and Thomas Tallis, Byrd’s Lulla, lullaby as much sacred lament as holy cradle song, Mary trembling at the memory of Herod’s Massacre of the Innocents. Byrd, a Catholic, was necessarily hyper sensitive to the brutal reality of Tudor-sponsored religious persecution in his homeland. Subtext is palpable. Conversely, Tallis’ deeply textured 6-part motet Videte miraculum matris Domini (“Behold the miracle of the Mother of the Lord”) hides nothing, profoundly emotional, towering, majestic. All voices are heard. All are uplifting.
A trio of joyful dance tunes by Anthony Holborne — Heigh ho holiday, As it fell on a holie eve, The New-yeeres Gift — played with delicious grace and exuberance by a zestful ensemble — organ, lute, recorder and citern — brings the program to a celebratory close.
Compelling, compassionate, thoughtfully curated, the Toronto Consort’s Christmas Story is ageless.
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To purchase an individual concert streaming pass to The Christmas Story visit torontoconsort.org and follow the link to EarlyMusicTV. Annual passes to recent and upcoming programming also available.