Christmas songs: Musicians share favourites, from Nat King Cole to

Toronto Star, Canada
Dec 22 2012

Christmas songs: Musicians share favourites, from Nat King Cole to The Messiah

By Oakland Ross
Feature Writer

What would Christmas be like without Christmas music?

Ask Gayane Bareghamyan. She can’t imagine Christmas in any other way –
or at least not the Christmases of her youth.

`During the Soviet regime, people weren’t too much connected to the
church,’ says Bareghamyan, who grew up in Armenia when the country
chafed under Moscow’s thumb. `There was no Christmas music in

Yerevan and other Armenian cities pulse with carols at Christmastime
now, but that’s little consolation to Bareghamyan, who remembers a
time when a silent night at Christmas meant exactly that and nothing

A violin teacher by profession, and a music lover by avocation,
Bareghamyan cannot name a single special piece of music she associates
with the Christmas season.

`I’m very sorry,’ she says. `Not a particular one.’

To many Canadians, such a predicament would seem unthinkable.

For them, music is to Christmas what oxygen is to life.

`We used to fight on Christmas morning about what music to listen to
during the opening of presents,’ remembers Mervon Mehta, executive
director of performing arts at the Royal Conservatory of Music, who
grew up in Montreal. `We were all dragged to our Christmas concerts,
to sing beautifully or badly. It was absolutely perfect.’

That is Christmas for most Canadians – a time for food and family, for
laughter and gifts, but also for music and song.

`When families come together, music can create a certain atmosphere,’
says Johannes Debus, music director of the Canadian Opera Company, who
grew up in a small town in Germany. `Those tunes create in me certain
feelings of home. It’s a certain nostalgic feeling.’

That feeling can be enjoyed and celebrated by means of any human sense
– whether taste or touch or sight or smell – but it may well be
through our ears and with our voices that we most fully experience
that thrill of community and communion that resides near the heart of
what we talk about when we talk about the spirit of Christmas.

In the paragraphs that follow, a handful of Canadians – all of whose
lives revolve around music – share their favourite songs of the season
and their fondest musical memories of the Christmas celebrations of
their youth.

Debus’s earliest Christmas memories centre on an 11th-century
Romanesque cathedral in his hometown of Speyer, Germany.

`It’s a stunning, remarkable building,’ he recalls. `Since I was 5, I
was singing in the chorale there. My favourite Christmas music is
Johann Sebastian Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, which I often performed as
a choir boy. That piece will never lose its power.’

Among familiar Christian carols, he says he especially loves `Adeste Fideles.’

Like Bareghamyan, Hungarian-born Michael Remenyi grew up under the
long shadow of the Soviet Union, but he remembers Christmas as a happy
and songful time.

`If we start with childhood memories, music is as important as sights
and sounds,’ says Remenyi, an accomplished cellist and owner of the
venerable House of Remenyi musical instrument shop across Bloor Street
from the Royal Ontario Museum. `When you’ve played your first
Christmas carol, you are in the Christmas spirit.’

Music that spurs memories of Christmas for Remenyi includes Mozart’s
Coronation Mass in C as well as almost any choral work by 20th-century
English composer John Ritter.

`His choral music is just wonderful.’

If you prefer a more contemporary take on Christmas music, then Mehta
at the Royal Conservatory is happy to oblige.

`My tastes are all over the map,’ says the man in charge of organizing
concerts at Koerner Hall.

His all-time favourite Christmas song is perhaps best known as
`Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire’ – its formal title is `The
Christmas Song’ – as performed by late American crooner Nat King Cole.

`To me, there’s no better Christmas song than that,’ he says, praising
Cole’s `butter voice.’

Mehta recalls Christmas morning debates, when his mother would call
for German lieder to be played on the stereo, while her son insisted
on, oh, maybe `Santa Claus is Coming to TOWNEND’ by Bruce Springsteen
(`How cool is that?’) or else an a capella number by The Sounds of
Blackness, a U.S. gospel ensemble.

`I had moved away from traditional Christmas carols,’ he explains.

Canadian mezzo-soprano Julie Nesrallah – host of the Tempo classical
music show on CBC Radio 2 – agrees with Mehta on one musical point.
She, too, claims `Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire’ as her
quintessential Christmas song. But she favours the Mel Torme version,
which she used as a model when she first performed the piece in a
school choir as a child of Christian Lebanese immigrants in Ottawa.

`Out of the blue, this Lebanese kid with big hair belts it out,’ she
says, referring to herself. `It’s been on my list of faves ever since.
My next favourite, I would say, is `O Holy Night’ sung by Luciano
Pavarotti. It is moving. Oh, my God.’

Surprisingly, no one has yet mentioned that perennial musical emissary
of Xmas, Handel’s Messiah. So it’s a good thing that Gabriel Radford
is on the line. He claims the Christmas staple as his No. 1 seasonal

`Handel’s Messiah and Christmas are totally inseparable,’ says
Radford, who plays French horn in the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.
`Hearing music from The Messiah instantly puts me in the Christmas

On Christmas Day itself, however, Radford favours traditional carols
(`Nothing replaces them’), with one modern addition – an album by U.S.
jazz diva Ella Fitzgerald called Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas.

`Ella is awesome,’ says Radford. `That album is really great.’

Soprano Lorna MacDonald, who teaches music at the University of
Toronto, has two favourite carols, one of them familiar – `Away in a
Manger’ – and one of them less so. The unfamiliar piece is entitled
`See, Amid the Winter Snow,’ and it has a lovely, haunting melody.

`Majestic,’ she calls it.

And, like Radford, MacDonald is a grateful devotee of George Frideric
Handel’s greatest gift to the Christmas season.

`I can’t imagine a Christmas without listening to The Messiah.’

Fortunately, she doesn’t have to.–christmas-songs-musicians-share-favourites-from-nat-king-cole-to-the-messiah