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Classical Album of the Week: Be All Merry with a Fresh Spin on Carols and Poems of Old

December 21, 2020. Let’s face it—holiday music can divide a room faster than Santa’s globe-circling sleigh on Christmas Eve. This is the time of year we set aside our usual debates, about cheesesteaks and such, and find ourselves either relishing in the cozy nostalgia and cheery jingle of holiday music or feeling a bit worn out by it all.

To the rescue comes WRTI with an album sure to bring us all together in a fresh, renewed spirit of holiday listening! A new release from Signum Records by The Choral Scholars of University College Dublin and the Irish Chamber Orchestra, Be All Merry, offers a contemporary treatment to old poems and carols. Some you’ll know and maybe some you won’t, which is half the fun as you make your way through this album.

Three selections stand out and all of them come from living composers brand new to the WRTI airwaves — Slovenian composer Andrej Makor (b. 1987), Northern Irish composer Elaine Agnew (b. 1967) and Irish composer Eoghan Desmond (b. 1989).

The first is Makor’s O Magnum Mysterium. This text, a responsorial chant for the Matins of Christmas, has been set by many a composer (from Tomás Luis de Victoria of 16th-century Spain to Morten Laurisden of modern-day Los Angeles — both of which WRTI listeners may have heard on the station before). To start, Makor keeps all the intimacy you expect for the mystery that opens the text, with even a touch more delicacy than other composers have sought. Then, he builds this up dramatically, with a soaring, powerful “Allelujah” marking the joy that ends this text.

Agnew’s Curoo Curoo invites the natural world in, as so many traditional carols do. This is based on an 18th century Irish poem in which four birds appear on Christmas morning — a lark, a dove, a redbird and an owl. At turns sparkly and chirpy, then soothing and ethereal — a sound born of a choir of female voices blended with harp and vibraphone.

The title track, Desmond’s Be All Merry, is certainly new, commissioned in 2018 and finished just this year, though its text goes back six centuries and combines Latin and English, with the two languages moving amongst each other to great effect. Its merriment has depth. It’s zesty, full of gusto — coming as much from the choir’s twenty-six voices as from the solo violin, played by the orchestra’s leader, Katherine Hunka.

So, while you’re cooking and feasting, wrapping and unwrapping this week, tune in to WRTI to catch this album of bite-sized discoveries for the season!