Many families have a multitude of traditions during the holiday season: some bake cookies, go caroling, volunteer at charity, or go to church. But one tradition for many families is attending A Festival of Lessons & Carols, a concert performed by the Northwest Boychoir and Vocalpoint! Seattle. As divisions of Northwest Choirs, both groups aim to instill a passion for music and the arts in children and teens from the Pacific Northwest. These talented young men and women, between the ages of six and eighteen, perform alongside the Seattle Symphony in a classic Christmas service every year. This show is based on traditional Anglican worship services often held on Christmas Eve, and is a tradition that, this year, I participated in. The 90 minutes of readings, performances of traditional and modern Christmas carols, and heartwarming sing-alongs of classic Christmas favorites proved to be a jolly experience that exemplified the Christmas spirit.
The concert started with a luminous performance of “I Saw Three Ships,” which was followed by nine Bible readings, the titular lessons, and a varied and unique selection of carols. The ethereal voices of the Boychoir mixed well with the lower sounds of both male and female sections of Vocalpoint! Seattle, with an evident effort to enliven classic Christmas songs like “Silent Night” and “Hark The Herald.” Through new rhythms and consonant harmonies, these songs illustrated the diverse talents of the choir. Although some song choices were much more obscure than others, the songs included more modern arrangements and compositions, which helped to avoid the dreaded glaze of apathy which often covers an audience's eyes when faced with unfamiliar tunes. One particularly amusing performance was that of “Sweet Little Jesus Boy,” a Gospel song first written in the 1930s and arranged by the choir’s director Joseph Crnko; this song juxtaposed soaring, nearly incandescent melodies with upbeat, contemporary sounds. The female driven sing-alongs were less varied, more traditional carols, but had the same blend of expression, excellent sense of pitch, warm tonal quality, and crisp pronunciation.
The only issue I saw that could arise for some was the very evident importance of religion that flowed through the concert from start till end. The service made no attempts to include a variety of secular or inter-denominational musical selections (not even favorites like “Jingle Bells”), which could have left some attendees feeling lost or left out (I can only claim knowing half of the sing-along carols myself). The Bible readings certainly would be rather tedious for some non-Christian viewers, despite the lively performances and sing alongs. But, to its credit, the program does make this religious observance evident on its website, and makes no pretenses of total inclusion, even if this doesn’t reduce any possible discomfort.
However, for those who aren’t seeking a religious experience, this service still presented itself as a valuable and approachable opportunity to explore new traditions and religions, no matter what background you come from. This was true for me; I have never been to a religious Christmas service, and attending this concert sheds new light on what Christmas means to many people around the world.
What was perhaps most entertaining were the sections where the audience was instructed to sing along. While I admit some of the songs were unfamiliar to me, and that I was certainly out of tune, the sight of people both young and old, of different ethnic, religious, and cultural backgrounds joining together to fill Benaroya Hall with song was an illustration of unity and joy during the holidays. While this service may have been named for Biblical lessons, attending it provided a lesson in not only others Christmas traditions, but also the view of Christmas that is shared by so many.