Benjamin Britten was on a Swedish cargo ship, crossing the U-boat-infested Atlantic, when he wrote most of “A Ceremony of Carols,” a perennial holiday favorite for choral music enthusiasts. The British composer had just completed a successful three-year visit to North America in 1942 when a longing for his homeland during World War II triumphed over his sense of self-preservation.
This year marks the centennial anniversary of the composer’s birth, and almost every choir in the world is performing the work, according to Utah Chamber Artists co-founder and artistic director Barlow Bradford. His ensemble will present a four-part, mixed-choir version of “Ceremony” during a concert titled “ ’Tis the Season — The Music of Christmas.”
The music, originally written for women’s chorus, solo voices and harp, was conceived as a group of unrelated songs, but Britten unified the work, adding a beginning processional and ending recessional. A thread of unifying motifs also helps pull the piece together.
Harpist Tamara Oswald will provide accompaniment and solo during a sublime interlude midway through. Individual choir members also solo.
Three carols — the driving “This little babe,” the lullaby “Balulalow” and the melodic “There is no rose” — are sung on a regular basis, but lesser-known carols, such as the energetic “Wolcum Yole,” the haunting “In freezing winter” and vivid “Deo gracias” are engaging works, conveying less familiar elements of the Christmas story.
The concert also celebrates another composer’s centenary, the lesser-known but significant Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski. Four years after Britten composed “A Ceremony of Carols,” Lutoslawski set 20 traditional Polish carols for voice and piano. Thirty-nine years later, he started orchestrating the songs, completing the project in 1990. The composer retained the innocence and purity of the text and melodies while treating the accompaniments with deft harmonic inventiveness that adds depth without detracting from the carols’ simplicity.
Bradford, who didn’t think these selections had been performed in the Salt Lake area, said they sound like carols, even though the audience may not be familiar with them. “It’s difficult to find selections for Christmas that are new and fresh,” he said. But he feels that these short works, which will be sung in English, fit that description.
“I absolutely adore the music, said lyric mezzo-soprano Corinne Elizabeth Rydman, who is featured in five of the 10 carols. “Lutoslawski does a really great job taking the best of 20th-century music and incorporating it into these carols.”
Rydman, who will graduate this month from Westminster College with a degree in elementary education, described the music as tonal but not necessarily with commonly expected harmonic progressions. The most difficult carol for her to sing is “Lullaby Jesus,” but it became her favorite.
The unveiling of Bradford’s latest Christmas compositions is a traditional element of Utah Chamber Artists holiday concerts. Besides directing the group, he holds the Ellen Neilsen Barnes presidential chair of choral studies at the University of Utah and recently was named director of the Utah Symphony Chorus. He also continues to manage his own music publishing company.
While admitting that his compositional output isn’t as prolific as it once was, he feels pressured to add new works to his catalog each year to keep the company vibrant, concentrating on Christmas music, because 90 percent of sales come from this genre.
Bradford is working on a new arrangement of “Joy to the World.” With so many available versions of the tune, it posed a challenge for him to come up with something original.
According to Bradford, the difficulty comes from the song’s initial descending line, starting with the highest note and ending on the lowest. “Generally speaking, when doing a carol like this, [the arranger] needs something that continues to rise, not fall,” he said, referring to his goal of creating intensifying energy throughout the score. “Actually, it’s turning out to be pretty fun.”
Bradford has reimagined another familiar work that is not usually considered a Christmas song, “All Through the Night.” He said there are some who feel that the Welsh lullaby’s lyrics constitute a Christmas text, so he composed an original melody for these verses that Utah Chamber Artists executive director Rebecca Durham described as simple with an “exquisitely harmonized accompaniment.”
Each half of the concert will begin with an audience sing-along — another group tradition. Tenor David Hansen, a Salt Lake attorney who has sung with Utah Chamber Artists for 21 of its 22-year history, feels that people should nurture Christmas traditions by finding a seasonal concert the whole family can enjoy.
Hansen has noticed consistent growth in the quality of Utah Chamber Artists performances over the years, specifically the group’s maturing sound. “Maybe that’s because we’re getting older,” he joked. He also cited the group’s professional approach to singing and singers’ ability to quickly learn challenging literature. But for Hansen, the association he has with other choir members is what he most treasures. “The greatest friendships are found through the creation of music.”
Utah Chamber Artists
P “ ’Tis the Season — the Music of Christmas” celebrates the centenary of composers Benjamin Britten and Witold Lutoslawski.
When • Monday, 7:30 p.m.
Where • Libby Gardner Concert Hall, 1375 E. Presidents Circle, University of Utah, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $15 adults, $12 students, excluding handling fee; $17.50 adults, $15 students, day of the concert. Call 801-581-7100 or visit www.kingtix.org or the Kingsbury Hall ticket office at 1395 E. Presidents Circle or Libby Gardner Hall ticket office, open 6:30 p.m. the day of the concert