There are basically only two kinds of Christmas music: sacred and profane. The profane includes everything from “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” to “Jingle Bell Rock,” and most of it is sentimental at best and inane at worst. The sacred includes everything from “O Little Town of Bethlehem” to “Away in a Manger,” and most of it is nostalgic at best and insipid at worst. But while there is very, very little truly great profane Christmas music, there is an enormous amount of truly great sacred Christmas music. One has to go back to find it, back to a time before Christmas was a celebration of consumer capitalism, a time when Christmas was a celebration of the mystery of God-made-man. One has to go back beyond nostalgia to the sublime and numinous polyphonic Christmas music of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.
In Ann Arbor that means going to the Christmas concert on Wednesday, December 3, by Vox. The latest in Ann Arbor’s long, illustrious line of early-music groups, Vox is a vocal ensemble dedicated to the performance of medieval and Renaissance music. Founded in 2000 by Whitnie Crown Wolverton and under the artistic direction of Christopher Wolverton since its inception, Vox is currently the ensemble-in-residence at St. Thomas Catholic Church. It is an ideal match of performers, repertoire, and hall, the radiant clarity of the voices shimmering in the warmly reverberant acoustics of St. Thomas’s nave.
That is particularly so in Vox’s Christmas program, In Dulci Jubilo, a concert where luminous voices meet numinous music in the sweetest Christmas concert this side of the Great Divide. There’s some plainchant on the program, but mostly there’s polyphony — the angular lines of medieval carols, and the lushness of Renaissance motets. Highlights include the elated “Ave Maria” by Victoria and the ecstatic “Omnes de Saba” by Lasso, motets with polyphony bright, clear, and joyous. In an unusual step for an early-music concert, Vox also performs a newly commissioned work by U-M composer Kristin Kuster, “Rorate Caeli.” Christopher Wolverton describes it as “quite a beautiful and interesting work . . . inspired by the plainchant . . . and quite a tour de force for the singers.”
Along with Kuster’s new work, Wolverton’s program features some strangely familiar works. You’ll recognize, for instance, the first part of the thirteenth-century setting of the medieval hymn “Veni, Veni, Emmanuel” as “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” but the second part, with all its parallel fifths, is nothing like the nineteenth-century harmonization we’re all used to — suddenly, the hymn sounds very medieval. “The subtext I had in mind when programming this concert was that everyone knows more early music than they realize!” says Wolverton.