Holidays a cappella: Holiday Favorites

December 2009

Program Notes

Deck the Hall

traditional, arr. Gene Puerling

The First Noel

traditional, Darmon Meader

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We Three Kings


John Henry Hopkins, Jr.,
arr. Darmon Meader

Joy to the World! G. F. Handel, text by Isaac Watts
arr. Stephen Paulus

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Coventry Carol traditional, arr. Darmon Meader

Hark! the Herald Angels Sing

Felix Mendelssohn, text by Charles Wesley
arr. Cedric Dent

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Poor Little Jesus  

traditional, arr. Anne Heider

I Saw Three Ships

 traditional, arr. Ralph Vaughan Williams

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Carol of the Bells Mykola Leontovych, text by Peter Wilhousky
("Silver Bells" by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans)
arr. Rich Manners

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Ding Dong Merrily on High French 16th century tune, words by G. R. Woodward
arr. H. LeFevre Pope
O Little Town of Bethlehem Lewis Redner, text by Phillips Brooks
arr. Nancy Grundahl

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Christmas Spiritual Medley traditional, arr. Joseph Jennings


Al Hanisim

world premiere

arr. Robert Applebaum

Ikh Bin a Kleyner Dreydl
(I Am a Little Dreydl)

Mikhl Gelbart,
arr. Mark Zuckerman


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Mary Had a Baby      traditional, arr. Shaw/Parker
O Come, All Ye Faithful   attributed to John F. Wade, arr. Stephen Paulus

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Silent Night

audience hums

Franz X. Gruber,
words by Joseph Mohr
The Holly and the Ivy

Gloucestershire Folk Carol, collected by Cecil Sharp
 arr. William Llewellyn

audience joins at refrain

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The Twelve Days of Christmas

Traditional English tune
with additions by Frederic Austin
arr. Ian Humphris

audience joins at “…and a partridge in a pear tree”

encore: Jingle Bells

James Pierpont, arr. Gordon Langford


If you’ve been to “Holidays a cappella” in years past, you’ll remember that we usually do two types of music on our December concerts. The first type might be termed “cool arrangements of familiar tunes.” In other words, most of you would have heard the tune at some point in your life—such as the spiritual “Mary Had a Baby”—though perhaps the arrangement we sing might be new to you. The second type is a collection of unusual and even obscure (but still, we believe, cool) music from around the world. Examples of the latter category have included boisterous Latvian carols for male choir, solemn Icelandic hymns to the Virgin Mary, and winter ragas from India set for choir at breakneck speed.

This year, we decided to do something a little different. Our leadership team realized that it might be fun to have one of those concerts where virtually every tune will have the happy ring of familiarity with most people. At the same time, we always like sharing with you a set of wonderful arrangements that most of you might not have heard, so we’ve continued our tradition of looking around the world for great stuff.

Did you know that there are lists online for Most Popular Christmas Carols? It’s true. One such list gave rise to the basic playlist for this concert. After that, it was our challenge to find arrangements that we thought you would like and that we thought it would be rewarding to sing. A few of these appear on our 2002 album Holidays a cappella Live!

Here’s a rundown of the musicians whose work is new to our ensemble. One of our singers suggested the music of Darmon Meader, a driving musical force behind New York Voices; three of his arrangements appear on this program. Other newcomers to Chicago a cappella’s programs include Nancy Grundahl, H. LeFevre Pope, and Gordon Langford. A special welcome to composer Rich Manners, a fixture on the Chicago and L.A. studio scenes, whose refreshing Carol of the Bells will keep you awake! We are also pleased to present the world premiere of a new Chanukah setting (Al Hanisim, or “For the Miracles”) by Bob Applebaum, our longtime collaborator and friend.

While this time of year is typically one of great joy, it is often a season of sorrow as well. The board and staff and singers of Chicago a cappella are dedicating these performances to the memory of Nancee Miller, a longtime fan and supporter of Chicago a cappella who passed away last month at age 52 after a valiant struggle against complications from breast cancer. Nan attended the very first performances of the ensemble back in 1993. Among other things, Nan taught swimming at the Evanston YMCA. A true caregiver, she also routinely provided cases of water for our Evanston concerts to refresh the singers backstage. Nan was also my first cousin. We miss her terribly. We send wishes of healing to the extended family and to all in the community whom she touched. May our voices send peace to all who mourn and comfort to all who are struggling with loss and hardship.

There is nothing in human experience that can substitute for live music, and live music happens because you are here. May we continue to find joy in the company of family and friends, and may we extend ourselves to one another in compassion and love. Thank you for joining us today.

—Jonathan Miller
Founder and Artistic Director


arr. Gene Puerling: Deck the Hall

Everyone active in the vocal-jazz and choral-music world owes a debt to Gene Puerling. Gene (1929-2008) was a giant in the a cappella world, having been the driving musical force behind both the Hi-Lo’s (an all-male quartet), which began in 1953, and The Singers Unlimited, which got its start in 1967. These two groups rightfully reign in the hearts of a cappella fans as two of the most popular vocal ensembles of all time.

The Singers Unlimited (for whom Puerling created this arrangement) were pioneers in the technology of “stacking,” or multi-tracking, their sound. They would lay down one set of harmonies and then overdub themselves—either with the same pitches, for a richer effect, or with new notes to create more complex harmonies. We are doing with nine singers what they did with four, so there’s no need to multi-track in live performance!

arr. Darmon Meader: The First Noel

Recognized in both the jazz vocal and instrumental worlds, Darmon Meader is a highly respected vocalist, arranger and saxophonist. He has achieved international recognition as the founder, musical director, chief arranger, composer, producer, saxophonist, and vocalist with New York Voices.

Meader’s setting of The First Noel is an unusually good combination of the old and the new. He begins rather conventionally and then adds more and more beautiful touches of harmonic complexity as it progresses. There are tasteful suspensions here and there in the chorus, variations in voicing, and finally a full-blown nod to vocal-jazz chords in the end, all remaining within the sense of a traditional carol.

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arr. Darmon Meader: We Three Kings

Darmon Meader shows us a little more of his vocal-jazz stuff with this arrangement, which features vocal percussion, “two-against-three” rhythms, and deft modulations. While the breezy “groove” here owes much to the idiom of the original Swingle Singers, Meader keeps beautiful control of his own sound-world, layering descants above the main melody as the arrangement builds to a strong finish.

arr. Stephen Paulus: Joy to the World!

Internationally known as a composer of choral music, chamber music, and opera, Stephen Paulus has more than 200 choral works in his ever-expanding catalogue, including the major work Awakening that Chicago a cappella performed last season. Paulus wrote extensively for the Dale Warland Singers during that renowned ensemble’s tenure of 31 years, including a collection called A Dale Warland Christmas. This arrangement comes from that set.

Be prepared to have your ears surprised here. Paulus layers chords on top of one another so that it almost sounds as if the familiar carol is in two keys at the same time. Let your ears guide you to what you would normally expect—and then listen to what is actually going on. The experience is unusual and quite extraordinary, a new way of hearing the familiar joy.

For the record: Stephen Paulus’s Splendid Jewel appears on Chicago a cappella’s CD Christmas a cappella: Songs from Around the World.

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arr. Darmon Meader: Coventry Carol

It is a treat to hear such a skillful new setting of a carol that one has known for decades. Darmon Meader originally wrote this version of Coventry Carol for New York Voices. Hints of contemporary harmony give the setting a delicate boost and keep the song buoyant despite the typically sad associations with the minor key. You may find it easier than usual, in Meader’s hands, to remember that the carol really is a lullaby, after all.

For the record: Jonathan Miller’s improvisational arrangement of Coventry Carol appears on Chicago a cappella’s CD Holidays a cappella Live.

arr. Cedric Dent: Hark! the herald angels sing

It’s a pleasure to bring you rare jewels of song like this. The Christian a cappella sextet known as Take 6 has been wowing audiences with their phenomenally intricate vocal-jazz since the late 1980s. Few of their arrangements have been leaked out for use by other ensembles, so we were lucky to happen upon this one, thanks to Betsy Grizzell. This arrangement comes from the album He is Christmas.

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arr. Anne Heider: Poor Little Jesus

Dr. Anne Heider is artistic director emerita of Bella Voce, of which she was a founding singer along with Jonathan Miller, and professor emerita of choral conducting at Roosevelt University. A true scholar-performer, Heider has also turned her skillful hand to arranging. This spiritual has been a longtime favorite of Chicago a cappella. It’s not the happiest of texts, sort of the flipside of a spiritual like Jester Hairston’s “Amen.” The tune here has a strong walking rhythm, which almost sound like hammer-blows. Heider peppers the E-minor key with moments of beautifully controlled dissonance that emphasize the sentiment, “Wasn’t that a pity and a shame,” which explodes into eight parts toward the end.

For the record: Anne Heider’s Poor Little Jesus appears on Chicago a cappella’s CD Holidays a cappella Live.

arr. Ralph Vaughan Willams: I saw three ships

Despite his huge output of music for the Church of England, Vaughan Williams was an avowed agnostic. Perhaps one of the reasons for his skepticism was his service in “The Great War” (World War I). His unit was required to stay in the field over Christmas; practical musician that he was, RVW wrote a collection for his troops, later published as Nine Carols for Men’s Voices. This lively song is mostly in three parts, opening up to four from time to time.

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arr. Rich Manners: Carol of the Bells

A former Chicagoan now living in L.A., Rich Manners shoots out of the gate at breakneck speed here. Be sure to breathe at least once before we get to the end!

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arr. H. LeFevre Pope: Ding dong merrily on high

This is a lovely setting for women’s voices by a British musician who was known as an organist and historian.

arr. Nancy Grundahl: O little town of Bethlehem

Nancy Grundahl is a Minnesota-based choral director, arranger, and composer. Her setting of America the Beautiful was sung by the San Francisco Boys and Girls Chorus at the inauguration of President Barack Obama. This lovely setting of O Little Town of Bethlehem features unusual rhythms and skillful harmonic inflections.

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arr. Joseph Jennings: Christmas Spiritual Medley

One of the world’s most acclaimed and decorated vocal-ensemble directors, Joseph Jennings joined Chanticleer as a countertenor in 1983. Shortly thereafter, he assumed the title of Music Director, a post which he held until his retirement in June 2009. Under his direction, Chanticleer released more than 30 critically acclaimed recordings (works ranging from Gregorian chant to Renaissance masterworks to jazz), including the Grammy Award-winning Colors of Love and Lamentations and Praises, and has performed at many of the world’s most prestigious festivals and concert halls. A prolific composer and arranger, Mr. Jennings has provided Chanticleer with some of its most popular repertoire, most notably spirituals, gospel music, and jazz standards. He has also composed for countless vocal ensembles as a commissioned composer. In addition to being Music Director of Chanticleer, Mr. Jennings has led the Golden Gate Men's Chorus.

One of Jennings’s greatest strengths is his stylistic versatility. This medley of traditional Christmas spirituals runs the gamut from being contained and reverent (“Rise up, shepherd, and follow”) to downright campy (“Sweet little Jesus boy”); the latter reflects Jennings’s early influences by the great small gospel groups such as the Ward Sisters. Jennings also gives the tempo marking of “Bloozy” for his brief setting (in a major key) of “Poor little Jesus,” leaving no doubt that loosening up is a good idea.

For the record: Joseph Jennings’s arrangement of Steal Away appears on Chicago a cappella’s CD Go Down, Moses.


arr. Bob Applebaum: Al Hanisim (For the Miracles) – world premiere performance

Bob Applebaum is about as close as Chicago a cappella has to a “house composer,” having provided us with many superb pieces over a decade or so. He is particularly adept at setting the Hebrew language, as he does here in this ages-old setting of the traditional Chanukah prayer Al Hanisim. The tune has a distinctively Mediterranean character, with what music theorists might call a “flat-2 and sharp-3” musical scale. What you’ll hear is a melodic feature in which the second note of the scale is only a half-step above the “home” pitch, instead of a whole note as we usually have in music from further up north.

For the record: Bob Applebaum’s music appears on two Chicago a cappella CDs. Two songs for Chanukah, “Oh Chanukah / Y'mei Hachanukah” and “Funky Dreidl,” appear on the CD Holidays a cappella Live. Three Applebaum works set to Shakespeare texts (“Spring,” “Witches’ Blues,” and “Sonnet 18: Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”) appear on the CD Shall I Compare Thee?

Mikhl Gelbart, arr. Mark Zuckerman: Ikh bin a kleyner dreydl (I am a little dreydl)

Mark Zuckerman is a New Jersey-based composer with a background in music theory and composition who has devoted many years to applying his skills to traditional Yiddish song. He has created dozens of arrangements, including rather religious songs and ranging all the way to a truly authentic, fully Yiddish rendition of Bey mir bistu sheyn. This setting speaks mostly for itself, being quite sweet and funny.

For the record: Mark Zuckerman’s arrangement of Ikh bin a kleyner dreydl appears on Chicago a cappella’s CD Holidays a cappella Live.

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arr. Robert Shaw and Alice Parker: Mary had a baby

Scholars tell us that there are not too many spirituals on the subject of Christmas or Easter. Nevertheless, we have another winner here, arranged by the thoughtful and sensitive Shaw/Parker team. The all-male setting alternates solo “statement” verses with chordal “question” verses (such as “Where was he born?”), ending in a moment of extreme tenderness.

arr. Stephen Paulus: O come, all ye faithful

From the same collection as Joy to the world! comes this colorful setting by Stephen Paulus. Again, here the arranger plays with the harmonies that you might be hearing in your head and fleshes them out with a rich and varied sonic palette.

For the record: Stephen Paulus’s Splendid Jewel appears on Chicago a cappella’s CD Christmas a cappella: Songs from Around the World.

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Franz X. Gruber: Silent night

The song was first performed on Christmas Eve, 1818, in the Church of St. Nicholas in Oberndorf, Austria. It is amazing how much is known about the creation of this song, or at least how many stories and anecdotes exist about the piece. (There is even a “Silent Night Society” in Austria that documents the history and tradition of the carol.) A century and a half before the Vatican shifted to guitar masses, the song was composed for voices and guitar. One version of the story tells us that Father Joseph Mohr, who wrote the words, wanted a song that he could accompany on his guitar; another version claims that the church’s organ was broken. One particularly sweet tidbit of history seems firm: during the Christmas Truce of 1914 during World War I, the British and German troops sang the song at the same time (in English and German, respectively), as it was one of the few carols that soldiers on both sides of the war actually knew.

arr. William Llewellyn: The holly and the ivy

William Llewellyn is one of those legendary musicians about whom too little is known. He was director of music at Charterhouse—the school at which Vaughan Williams himself studied—from 1965 to 1987 and was a key figure in keeping the latter’s reputation alive on both sides of the Atlantic. Llewellyn was the editor of the recently published Novello Book of Carols, a superb two-volume collection which has given Chicago a cappella many gems over the seasons. This sweet and simple arrangement brings the season into clear focus and is one of those tunes that can have you humming it for days on end afterward.

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arr. Ian Humphris: The Twelve Days of Christmas

Ian Humphris is a renowned composer and arranger who was a radio and TV producer in England and currently serves as conductor of the National Westminster Choir.

If you ever thought of yourself as being in a barnyard while singing this carol, you are in good company! Humphris took some of the associations that might be floating around one’s mind and made them into music. Listen carefully so you don’t miss any of the vocal surprises.

For the record: Ian Humphris’s arrangement of Noel Nouvelet appears on Chicago a cappella’s CD Christmas a cappella: Songs from Around the World.

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