Looking for the perfect soundtrack for the holidays? Tired of the same old music? We've got a fix for that. We asked WRTI’s hosts and arts reporters to tell us their go-to holiday favorites. Here are their answers, and the memories, feelings, or just beautiful sounds that inspired them.
Gregg Whiteside, Glorious Sound of Christmas, Eugene Ormandy, conductor
Hearing the Philadelphia Orchestra play the national anthem before its first concert this season brought back memories of the first time I heard Glorious Sound of Christmas, the best-selling 1962 recording of Arthur Harris's orchestral arrangements of holiday favorites, with the Philadelphians and Temple University Concert Choir, conducted by Eugene Ormandy. Familiar these pieces may be, but the fabled "Philadelphia Sound" was burnished to a sheen as startlingly gorgeous today as it was then. Listening to the Philadelphia Orchestra play these carols, one hears them in a whole new way. And the recording is still available, transferred to CD with care and expertise. If you're looking for a fabulous holiday CD, you can't go wrong with this timeless recording.
Bob Perkins, Nat King Cole, The Christmas Song
There is a line in Nat King Cole's Christmas Song that says:"Every mother's child is gonna spy, to see if reindeer really know how to fly." Quite a line. A master composer/lyricist the caliber of Cole Porter could not have done better.
Jack Moore, Hollywood Bowl Symphony Orchestra, The Music of Christmas
When I was growing up Christmas tree-trimming was always a fun time for me and I first heard this album when I was about six or seven. When my family would decorate, my mother would put a stack of LPs on the old Magnavox console stereo in our living room – the records would drop down one after the other. Nat King Cole’s Christmas album was on the turntable, as was this recording that Carmen Dragon made with the Hollywood Bowl Symphony Orchestra. It’s got his arrangements of traditional songs and carols. They’re arresting, virtuoso orchestrations that I’ve never tired of hearing. Orchestras today still use Dragon’s arrangements to play in concerts, and they’re something to experience. If you can get a copy of this album, you won’t be disappointed.
J. Michael Harrison, Vince Guaraldi Trio, A Charlie Brown Christmas
For me, this recording is a big part of the holiday season. As a child there were certain things besides the gifts that you anticipated every Christmas. That included shows like Frosty the Snowman and Charlie Brown’s Christmas; and, of course, The Grinch. Over the years so many children have connected with the Peanut characters, and especially Chuck himself. When I hear the music from that soundtrack, it’s Christmastime for sure, and I’m returned to my childhood.
Although only twelve bars long, Franz Gruber’s “Silent Night” can still rekindle childhood feelings of Christmas. I must have been four or five years old when I first heard it. My parents asked why I was crying. I told them it was because the music was so beautiful. My first, but not the last, tears shed over a moving piece of music. This simple tune, written by a village schoolmaster and organist, continues to charm me to this day.
Courtney Blue, Eyal Vilner Big Band: Hanukkah
In the solemn and underrepresented realm that is Hanukkah music, Eyal Vilner’s new album Hanukkah, is a refreshingly festive and welcome addition to the sparse landscape. Vilner’s 16-piece big band evokes the 1920s Swing era with its treatment of these traditional songs, most notably on “O Hanukkah” where the band is accompanied by a traditional jazz vocal trio singing in the style of the Boswell Sisters.
Another highlight is “Sevivon” (The Driedel Song) reimagined here as a Brazilian samba! In just five songs, this big band’s energy is enough to keep your toes tapping for eight days and nights.
Debra Lew Harder, Cantus, Comfort and Joy, Volume One
With a sound that is rich and beautifully expressive, Cantus, the male a capella group from the Twin Cities, has several great albums for the holiday season. I especially love their Comfort and Joy albums, on which they sing a wide range of music: medieval chants to Appalachian tunes, to Spanish carols, African-American spirituals, Morten Lauridsen, and more. “Ave Maria,” by Franz Biebl, on Comfort and Joy, Volume One is breathtaking.
This rendition of "The Christmas Song" is the definitive instrumental interpretation of a Christmas carol that I have yet to hear. Arthur Blythe tells a wonderful story with his personal reading of this classic. I have never missed playing this version during the holidays. It wouldn’t be Christmas without hearing this song on several occasions.
Asalto Navideno and Asalto Navideno Vol II by Willie Colón and his Orchestra from 1973 and 1974 on the historic Fania Record label are filled with traditional songs of Christmas from Puerto Rico. I grew up listening to them. The festivities started the day after Thanksgiving and ended on January 6th. My father played the LP versions of these albums and joined in with musical instruments like the cuatro (Puerto Rican guitar).
It would not feel like the holiday season on El Viaje without playing some traditional Puerto Rican Christmas songs from these iconic and historical CDs.
This nostalgic montage of songs and sounds of Christmases of yore has always been a cherished recording of the Pinto family. A flood of happy childhood memories comes back whenever I listen to it. It was the soundtrack to many years of cookie baking, tree-trimming and house decorating as I was growing up. The music and heartfelt choral renditions radiate warmth from start to finish. In particular, the wondrous carols of Alfred Burt get me every time, and never fail to bring a wistful tear to my eye. This is the recording that first turned me on to choral singing. It just wouldn't be Christmas without it.
Maureen Malloy, Ella Wishes You A Swinging Christmas
I’d have to say my favorite holiday album is Ella Fitzgerald’s Ella Wishes You A Swinging Christmas. Not only was this the soundtrack to many childhood Christmas gatherings, but it was the only seasonal album (that I knew of) that had added verses and non-traditional songs. “Good Morning Blues” and the opening lyrics to “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” were like magic to my little soul.
Bob Craig, Hark
My favorite holiday CD is Hark by the clarinetist Richard Stoltzman. It's a collection of mostly well-known favorites surrounding the listener with a warm glow of sparkling arrangements. Musicians and singers range from the jazz bassist Eddie Gomez and vibraphonist Dave Samuels to the Boys Choir Of Harlem. It's the perfect way to unwind during the busy holiday season.
I first became familiar with this album during my years at WNED-FM in Buffalo, New York. It was the third cut on this disc…a French carol: “Il est né, le devin Enfant” that I found so attractive. It has stayed with me all these years. This is a generous disc with a wide variety of voice and instrumentation.
A few years ago my husband and I stumbled across a remarkable disc of noëls from Brittany. Fresh from an idyllic vacation in the Breton countryside, we were delighted by this unpretentious offering, which sounds quite unlike anything else in our CD collection. Our previous Christmas norm comprised perfectly tuned Renaissance motets with tasteful phrasing, services of lessons and carols in the Anglican tradition, sumptuous orchestral arrangements, etc. What to make of this adorable group of (mostly) amateurs, singing with rustic gusto, accompanied by pennywhistles, Celtic bagpipes, and strumming guitars? We have never been “folkies,” but we were captivated. Ten years later, this is still the first CD we pull out each Christmas season, and the one we play over and over again. It has an authenticity, even innocence, that perfectly suits the season. May we all greet this wonderful holiday with the unaffected joy of this Breton choir.
Meridee Duddleston, Robert Shaw, O Magnum Mysterium
I bought this CD and gave it to my mother for Christmas after hearing Robert Shaw’s interpretation of Morten Lauridsen’s “O Magnum Mysterium” here at WRTI. My mother enjoyed singing in church choirs all her life and I felt certain she’d love it. I remember her rhapsodizing about “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” In her nineties she’d still rate choir directors and, when asked, always had opinions about their music: “boring,” “nothing special,” “different.” Now this CD, and particularly the otherworldly Lauridsen “O Magnum Mysterium,” is all wrapped up in Christmas.
Susan Lewis, Menotti: Amahl and the Night Visitors
When I was growing up, each year at Christmas we’d watch and listen to Amahl and the Night Visitors: Glorious music by Gian Carlo Menotti that brings to life the story of the poor crippled shepherd boy whose mother opens their home to three strangers – the three kings traveling with their gifts for Jesus. It’s a story about love, courage, family and friends. I used to dance, act out the parts, and sing – and I still know most of the words to nearly every song. I didn’t know it was opera. I just knew it was some of best music I’ve ever heard.