Few recordings have the capacity to transcend cultural and religious traditions- yet conductor Judith Clurman and her angelic chorus Essential Voices USA have accomplished such a feat with the release of their album Season of Light: Songs of Thanksgiving, Christmas, Chanukah, New Year. With our country now wearing the unfortunate banner of what many media pundits have dubbed, “the Divided States of America” and global evidence of increasing violence and bloodshed, this collection promotes a spirit of gratitude, calm, peace that could not have arrived at a better time.
Season of Light is a brief but subtly effective holiday song cycle that takes listeners from the beginning of Thanksgiving through the start of a New Year. It opens with the title song, an original piece by American composer Jacob Narverud which directs us to a place of meditation for the holidays.
John Bucchino’s 1995 song Grateful , which has become popular among cabaret artists, is reimagined on Track 2 in a stirring choral rendition by arranger Ryan Nowlin. This has long been a personal favorite and a good reminder that while we may not always have what we want, we have more than enough of what we need.
Although often overplayed and over-recorded, Clurman chose Carol of the Bells as a gateway to the Christmas portion. I initially—and prematurely—rolled my eyes at the choice. After listening to this 3rd track, my hesitance turned to pleasant surprise and a smile beamed across my face. Quite often, familiar tunes are sung in a slipshod manner. Most singers assume that the listener has heard the tune many times before and fail to put proper care in the lyrics. Here, the words are crystal clear and the harmonies are perfect. Peter J. Wilhousky’s arrangement doesn’t reinvent the wheel, yet it evokes a euphoric feeling of anticipation for a joyous holiday season.
Another familiar tune is heard on track 4. God Rest Ye provides reassurance that “Christ the Savior was born on Christmas day” and bids “tidings of comfort and joy.” David Chase’s arrangement offers a sense of mystery and miracle, both of which epitomize the essence of the Christmas season for Christian believers. The sacredness continues on the 5th track with Jean Mouton’s Ave Maria. With pure solemnity, the chorus presents this song from the French Renaissance without frills or piano accompaniment.
Broadway composer Stephen Schwartz’s work appears on track 6 with a moody but tuneful selection that pays homage to the Jewish holiday celebration. With lyrics by Steve Young The Chanukah Song (We Are Lights) poetically suggests that the candlelight of Jewish tradition- lit thousands of years ago-continues to burn today and through it, a deep connection to ancestry is found. The song was originally written for Clurman in 2001 for the Lincoln Center holiday tree lighting and is updated here by Ryan Nowlin.
The New Year completes the holiday cycle with two excellent offerings on tracks 7 and 8; Benjamin Britten’s A New Year Carol, originally known as “Levy-dew”, is a song that speaks to an old Welsh custom of sprinkling people with fresh well water for the New Year. To me, it sounds like an incredibly unpleasant experience but this chorus makes it sound like an oasis of tranquility.
It ends with Auld Lang Syne, another ubiquitous song that is met with complete freshness in a Tedd Firth jazz arrangement, reminiscent of Manhattan Transfer.
All of the tracks (except Ave Maria) are accompanied by pianist Lee Musiker in a delicate and deeply feeling manner and Essential Voices USA is at the top of their game. This is their fourth album release on the Sono Luminus label and it is one to cherish.
The Danish author Hans Christian Anderson, best known for his fairy tales, once observed that, “Where words fail, music speaks.” As we wind down a tumultuous year where many have been left speechless, this is an album that speaks volumes through its stillness. It doesn’t delude us into pretending that everything is right with the world but thoughtfully, it offers us the precious and much needed gifts of redemption and hope.
Essential Voices USA’s Season of Light: Songs of Thanksgiving, Christmas, Chanukah, New Year is available on iTunes and Amazon.com.