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Christmas songs: Musicians share favourites, from Nat King Cole to The Messiah

What would Christmas be like without Christmas music?

Ask Gayane Bareghamyan. She can’t imagine Christmas in any other way — or at least not the Christmases of her youth.

“During the Soviet regime, people weren’t too much connected to the church,” says Bareghamyan, who grew up in Armenia when the country chafed under Moscow’s thumb. “There was no Christmas music in Armenia.”

Yerevan and other Armenian cities pulse with carols at Christmastime now, but that’s little consolation to Bareghamyan, who remembers a time when a silent night at Christmas meant exactly that and nothing more.

A violin teacher by profession, and a music lover by avocation, Bareghamyan cannot name a single special piece of music she associates with the Christmas season.

“I’m very sorry,” she says. “Not a particular one.”

To many Canadians, such a predicament would seem unthinkable.

For them, music is to Christmas what oxygen is to life.

“We used to fight on Christmas morning about what music to listen to during the opening of presents,” remembers Mervon Mehta, executive director of performing arts at the Royal Conservatory of Music, who grew up in Montreal. “We were all dragged to our Christmas concerts, to sing beautifully or badly. It was absolutely perfect.”

That is Christmas for most Canadians — a time for food and family, for laughter and gifts, but also for music and song.

“When families come together, music can create a certain atmosphere,” says Johannes Debus, music director of the Canadian Opera Company, who grew up in a small town in Germany. “Those tunes create in me certain feelings of home. It’s a certain nostalgic feeling.”

That feeling can be enjoyed and celebrated by means of any human sense — whether taste or touch or sight or smell — but it may well be through our ears and with our voices that we most fully experience that thrill of community and communion that resides near the heart of what we talk about when we talk about the spirit of Christmas.

In the paragraphs that follow, a handful of Canadians — all of whose lives revolve around music — share their favourite songs of the season and their fondest musical memories of the Christmas celebrations of their youth.

Debus’s earliest Christmas memories centre on an 11th-century Romanesque cathedral in his hometown of Speyer, Germany.

“It’s a stunning, remarkable building,” he recalls. “Since I was 5, I was singing in the chorale there. My favourite Christmas music is Johann Sebastian Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, which I often performed as a choir boy. That piece will never lose its power.”

Among familiar Christian carols, he says he especially loves “Adeste Fideles.”

Like Bareghamyan, Hungarian-born Michael Remenyi grew up under the long shadow of the Soviet Union, but he remembers Christmas as a happy and songful time.

“If we start with childhood memories, music is as important as sights and sounds,” says Remenyi, an accomplished cellist and owner of the venerable House of Remenyi musical instrument shop across Bloor Street from the Royal Ontario Museum. “When you’ve played your first Christmas carol, you are in the Christmas spirit.”

Music that spurs memories of Christmas for Remenyi includes Mozart’s Coronation Mass in C as well as almost any choral work by 20th-century English composer John Ritter.

“His choral music is just wonderful.”

If you prefer a more contemporary take on Christmas music, then Mehta at the Royal Conservatory is happy to oblige.

“My tastes are all over the map,” says the man in charge of organizing concerts at Koerner Hall.

His all-time favourite Christmas song is perhaps best known as “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire” — its formal title is “The Christmas Song” — as performed by late American crooner Nat King Cole.

“To me, there’s no better Christmas song than that,” he says, praising Cole’s “butter voice.”

Mehta recalls Christmas morning debates, when his mother would call for German lieder to be played on the stereo, while her son insisted on, oh, maybe “Santa Claus is Coming to TOWNEND” by Bruce Springsteen (“How cool is that?”) or else an a capella number by The Sounds of Blackness, a U.S. gospel ensemble.

“I had moved away from traditional Christmas carols,” he explains.

Canadian mezzo-soprano Julie Nesrallah — host of the Tempo classical music show on CBC Radio 2 — agrees with Mehta on one musical point. She, too, claims “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire” as her quintessential Christmas song. But she favours the Mel Torme version, which she used as a model when she first performed the piece in a school choir as a child of Christian Lebanese immigrants in Ottawa.

“Out of the blue, this Lebanese kid with big hair belts it out,” she says, referring to herself. “It’s been on my list of faves ever since. My next favourite, I would say, is ‘O Holy Night’ sung by Luciano Pavarotti. It is moving. Oh, my God.”

Surprisingly, no one has yet mentioned that perennial musical emissary of Xmas, Handel’s Messiah. So it’s a good thing that Gabriel Radford is on the line. He claims the Christmas staple as his No. 1 seasonal favourite.

“Handel’s Messiah and Christmas are totally inseparable,” says Radford, who plays French horn in the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. “Hearing music from The Messiah instantly puts me in the Christmas mood.”

On Christmas Day itself, however, Radford favours traditional carols (“Nothing replaces them”), with one modern addition — an album by U.S. jazz diva Ella Fitzgerald called Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas.

“Ella is awesome,” says Radford. “That album is really great.”

Soprano Lorna MacDonald, who teaches music at the University of Toronto, has two favourite carols, one of them familiar — “Away in a Manger” — and one of them less so. The unfamiliar piece is entitled “See, Amid the Winter Snow,” and it has a lovely, haunting melody.

“Majestic,” she calls it.

And, like Radford, MacDonald is a grateful devotee of George Frideric Handel’s greatest gift to the Christmas season.

“I can’t imagine a Christmas without listening to The Messiah.”

Fortunately, she doesn’t have to. – Entertainment

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