When I went to see the Philly POPS Christmas concert at the Kimmel Center with my friend Vanessa, I wasn't expecting much. I wasn't expecting much because Christmas music is in a special category. It's not classical music, rock or jazz, and it is not hip or edgy. Christmas carols have no beat and you can't dance to them. Not only that, but all too often what passes for Christmas music is played to death in supermarkets and retail stores. There's so much of it that your ears tune out after a while. How many times can one listen to Jose Feliciano's Feliz Navidad without wanting to jump off a cliff?
It's been a long time since I've heard a complete Christmas concert with all the songs I learned as a boy. The Kimmel Center auditorium wasn't overly crowded when we headed to our seats although there was a respectable crowd. There were a lot of parents in the audience since the program said there'd be a lot of kids on stage, not only the Philadelphia Boys Choir but an all-girls chorus from a Delaware County Christian school. We were also looking forward to hearing Opera sensation Angela Brown, as well as The African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas Gospel Choir. As it turned out, the St. Thomas choir sang Gospel music -- and yes, they had the place jumping.
I'm not one to pound my foot, clap my hands, stand up and shout 'Hallelujah!' as the sweat pours from my forehead, but there's a lot to be said for Gospel music. Many of the songs from the St. Thomas choir had members of the audience swaying their heads and clapping their hands.
Music often "gifts" the listener with an array of mental images. These images can include scenes from the past, images of loved ones, of people past and present, and yes, it can even inspire feelings of love (feelings of hate and annoyance almost never intrude). Feelings of love came over the audience when the Philadelphia Boys Choir sang "Ave Maria", a song composed in 1853. "Ave Maria" was one of my (deceased) mother's favorites, along with "The Little Drummer Boy" (1957). "Ave Maria" is one of those songs that people either love or hate, but even among those who hate it, the song almost always seems to have a quieting effect.
The other songs presented, like "Jingle Bells" (1857), brought into play many Christmas stereotypes: snowy nights, trees, gifts with red ribbons, money spent, spiked Egg Nog, coal in stockings, and Santa Claus. The song slammed me back into childhood's nadir, as did "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing."
Seated in the row ahead of me was the mother of a girl singer in that all-girl Delaware County chorus. The forty-something woman had long strawberry blond hair, and sat quietly in her seat until her daughter's chorus was introduced, at which point she became very animated, smiling and clapping as if she'd won the lottery. The mother's happiness radiated outward like a blast of electrons. Her pride in her daughter was so huge I imagined there must have been an unusual reason for it. Perhaps her daughter had overcome some challenging handicap; maybe she had had a hard time getting into the chorus, or had recovered from a serious illness. The mother's happiness was beyond the proud parent syndrome. At this point I attempted to spot the woman's daughter in the long lineup of girls facing the stage, but the task was hopeless. There were just too many girls with strawberry blond hair.
To my right, sitting beside Vanessa, was another woman, perhaps in her sixties who sat with her husband. This woman, oddly enough, was also a strawberry blond (probably dyed) but she was far more circumspect in her applause. I say this because immediately after the St. Thomas Gospel Choir concluded its 'raise-high-the-roof beams' numbers, she leaned over in my direction me and said, "Do you suppose the rest of the people on stage were wondering when they would ever stop all that shouting?"
Why, I wondered, did she feel comfortable saying this to me?
It was a benign enough comment, proving that you can't love every song presented in a concert format, as I would soon discover when the Philadelphia Boys Choir sang Feliz Navidad. This song, for whatever reason, has made me nervous and fidgety since childhood. As a boy I'd switch dials on the radio whenever it came on and then switch back again when I thought the song was over. When I couldn't switch the dial, I'd make fun of it by dancing around the house while making faces as the singers sang, "I wanna wish you a Merry Christmas" (Repeat three times). To this day, whenever I hear "Feliz Navidad" I want to mimic the refrain in unflattering ways.
As if getting my goat for my musical intolerance, when I went to WAWA for coffee the morning after the concert, wouldn't you know that the customer ahead of me in line said "Feliz Navidad" to the cashier after paying his bill. Doubling the impact, the cashier replied in kind, so I got two "Feliz Navidad's" in a row. Talk about a double whammy with no time to switch dials -- I mean... lines.
When Philly POPS played "The Little Drummer Boy" I not only remembered my mother humming the tune in our house in Malvern, but I recalled Maurice Ravel's "Bolero", upon which "The Little Drummer Boy" is based. If you've never heard of Ravel's "Bolero", I suggest you check it out and listen, because if you even have a small amount of music appreciation you'll love the way the song intensifies and accelerates into a slow fever pitch. (Do this even if you hate classical music, because Bolero is different and generally appeals to people who have no time for Beethoven, Chopin or Bach.)
Anyway, sitting there listening to "The Little Drummer Boy", my mind drifted to "Bolero", and to the first time I heard the song at age 14 while visiting the home of a friend. At that time my friend's mother was playing the composition as she paced her living room and kitchen (with a glass of wine) while keeping step to the music that slowly built and built until the crescendo end. To this day I can't listen to "Bolero" without seeing the face of Zada, my friend's mother, doing her meditative pacing.
During the concert, Conductor David Charles Abell kept repeating how the holiday means reuniting with friends and family, forgiving slights and injuries and showing warmth towards neighbors and friends. This message, delivered with the music, was producing a lightness of feeling in the audience. Even the grandmother to my right, who had poked fun at the Gospel singers, seemed friendlier as a result.
After the concert, Vanessa and I hailed a cab and made our way to the Market Street East station, where she took the train to her East Falls apartment, and where I boarded the Market-Frankford L to Front and Girard. Stepping on the L with the vibrations of "Jingle Bells", "Silent Night", and other carols in my head, I was lost in a "feel good" mental space while looking at the city weary expressions on the faces of the people in the train. Perhaps I had the same expression on my face and just didn't know it, but somehow I don't think so. This Christmas concert, despite my skepticism about attending it at first, had worked its magic.