Millions of Americans celebrate Christmas, but let’s face it: The Yuletide is hardly an American original. Sometimes it seems about the only thing we’ve contributed to a story that began in the Middle East before it was St. Nicked by Europeans is our characteristic commercialization of what was once a spiritual occasion.
Actually, Americans have over the years made the holiday — like so many other cultural artifacts that originated elsewhere — our own through music. This season, a pair of institutions devoted to showing how Americans can take ideas from the Old World and make something equally valuable and distinctive present several very different American angles on Christmas.
Next Thursday and Sunday, Dec. 6 and 9, The Shedd’s Jazz Kings Christmas rings the bells for holiday songs with an American jazz accent. Singers Shirley Andress, Marisa Frantz and Bill Hulings front the band (with bells on!) in familiar tunes “Jingle Bells,” “Sleigh Ride,” “Carol of the Bells,” “Silver Bells,” “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” and other traditional holiday songs. The show tours to Roseburg, Corvallis and Newport the following week.
One of the songs on the program is Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” which has become so canonized that it’s easy to forget that it was written by an American (a Jewish one at that). Premiered by Northwest native Bing Crosby as a single, and then used in the 1942 film Holiday Inn, it remains the biggest-selling single of all time.
And it became the title track for Crosby and Danny Kaye’s 1954 film, a Berlin jukebox musical featuring a sleighful of his older hits (“Blue Skies,” “Happy Holiday,” “How Deep Is the Ocean,” “I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm” and many more).
The American story, involving a pair of World War II vets turned song-and-dance team pursuing a singing sister act during a Christmas gig, may not boast the impact of the babe in the manger, three wise guys and an immaculate conception, but that didn’t stop the movie from grossing the biggest box office take of the year.
“White Christmas” completed its sleigh ride from hit song to hit musical to hit film and back to stage with a 2000 theatrical adaptation of the 1954 film premiered by St Louis Municipal Opera Theatre that, despite lukewarm critical reception, went on to successful productions in San Francisco, Broadway, London and several American tours.
That’s the version that music director Robert Ashens and director Ron Daum are leading at The Shedd Nov. 30-Dec. 16. The show stars Ward Fairbairn and Eric Blanchard as the dancing ex-GIs and Lynnea Barry and Cyra Conforth as the siren sisters.
Another Northwesterner devoted to showcasing American musical traditions is violin deity Mark O’Connor, who’s developed an entire music-ed curriculum that introduces American kids to music using our own folk traditions rather than centuries-old European pedagogy.
Possibly the world’s greatest fiddler, the Seattle-born star brings the sound of his popular “Appalachia Waltz” combo to holiday music Dec. 12 at the McDonald Theatre, when his crack band along with singer Brandy Clark perform the music from his hit 2011 album An Appalachian Christmas. The Grammy-winning fiddle virtuoso (who’s also won major awards for his guitar and mandolin skill), composer (nine concertos, two symphonies, three string quartets and counting), studio musician and educator may have worked with some of the world’s most renowned musicians, from Yo Yo Ma to Earl Scruggs to Wynton Marsalis, but he really enjoys playing with his family and friends.
What better time to do that than during the holidays? His O’Connor Band features his wife and fellow fiddler/singer Peggy, champion mandolinist son Forrest, national flatpack champ guitarist Joe Smart, banjoist/bassist Geoff Saunders giving carols and other holiday standards given a warm, all-American bluegrass/folk inflection.
Speaking of American fiddling, one of the most acclaimed of living American composers, John Corigliano, scored an unexpected hit with his neo-Romantic score for the 1998 film The Red Violin, whose Twilight Zone-y story chronicled the adventures of a mysterious fiddle and its owners over several centuries.
Corigliano turned it into a popular violin concerto, and Chloë Hanslip performs a movement from it with the Eugene Symphony Dec. 6 at the Hult Center, in a concert that also features music by Buxtehude, Saint-Saëns and Mendelssohn’s exuberant “Italian” symphony.
Finally, it has nothing to do with the holidays, but J.S. Bach’s six sublime suites for solo cello are always welcome. Yo Yo Ma just released his third recording, which shows how much depth they contain. On Dec. 9, Delgani String Quartet cellist Eric Alterman plays and explicates the first three at United Lutheran Church.