Merry musical memories Local performers sing the praises of Christmases past, and offer hopes for the future

Fa, la, la! In the spirit of the season, Music Matters asked 12 Winnipeg-based, -born or -bred musicians to share their favourite Christmas memories, holiday traditions, best-loved carol or music, as well as their greatest lesson learned during this historic time.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 22/12/2021 (231 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Fa, la, la! In the spirit of the season, Music Matters asked 12 Winnipeg-based, -born or -bred musicians to share their favourite Christmas memories, holiday traditions, best-loved carol or music, as well as their greatest lesson learned during this historic time.

What’s on their Dear Santa wish list this year? Find out in this 12 Musical Days of Christmas.

1. Lara Ciekiewicz — opera singer

What’s your favourite Christmas carol, and why?

Andrew Thomson, executive director of Virtuosi Concerts, has warm holiday memories of sitting by the tree with his grandfather.

One favourite from my Ukrainian heritage is Shcho to za predïvo, arranged by Barvinskïy. On a text level, I love that it focuses both on the wonder of the season, and the humanness of loving and providing for someone in your care. On a musical level — it’s that quintessentially Slavic use of major-minor modal shifts to gorgeous effect.

Favourite holiday tradition?

Preparing and enjoying the traditional Ukrainian Christmas Eve dinner, Sviata Vecheria.

We don’t always make it to the full 12 dishes. However, with kolach, kutia, borscht, perogies, foraged mushrooms in sauce and more, it’s always a delicious feast. It also includes the wonderful tradition of setting a place at the table for family members who have passed, as a way to include and remember them.

What do you look forward most to over the holidays?

The feeling of connection between past, present and what is yet to come. The traditions that connect me to my ancestors, memories that connect me to the wonder of childhood, building new memories in the present, and growing traditions for the future. The holidays can really ignite my ability to see the magic in life and I love that.


2. Yuri Hooker — Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra principal cellist

Lara Ciekiewicz with kolach Ukrainian Christmas bread; the opera singer enjoys celebrating the traditions that connect her to her ancestors.

Favourite Christmas memory:

Many of my fondest childhood memories involve singing: informal carols and Renaissance motets with my family; listening to the King’s Singers Christmas LP; choral concerts and singalongs; or as a boy soprano singing solos in Britten’s Ceremony of Carols and Saint Nicolas, or Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors. (As a kid, I was much stronger as a singer than as a cellist!)

Favourite carol:

No contest: Hark! the Herald Angels Sing — for me, you can’t improve upon either Mendelssohn’s music or the profound beauty and hopeful truth of Charles Wesley’s text.

That said, my most energizing and creative experience with a Christmas carol came a couple of years ago, the day after a particularly inspiring Messiah led by Jane Glover. The next morning, while we were rehearsing John Rutter’s charming Brother Heinrich’s Christmas, I was inspired to write one of my own and within 24 hours, the harmonization and a total of eight stanzas had come to me! We’ve been singing White as Snow at our church every Christmas since.


3. Julian Pellicano — WSO associate conductor and Royal Winnipeg Ballet principal conductor

Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra cellist Yuri Hooker’s wrote his own Christmas carol a few years ago.

Favourite Christmas memory:

When I was in Grade 5, Santa brought me my first drum set. Total game-changer for me — also for my mother and sister, who had little choice but to be serenaded by a few hours of drumming each afternoon, plus Friday band practices were always at my house. Mom really loved that!

Favourite carol:

Veni, Veni, Emmanuel. As a kid I spent most of my time in church carefully scrutinizing the music and I knew that when we sang in Latin, the music was probably going to be amazing, which it always was. I’ve always found it to be a mysteriously beautiful melody, and the thought that it has been sung for over a thousand years is kind of overwhelming.

Favourite holiday tradition:

Like most Italian families, we prepare a massive feast of only seafood dishes on Christmas Eve, and in New York this is the one day of the year when my massive extended family all gather under one roof. Even though I’m usually in Winnipeg on Christmas Eve with my wife and two daughters, since it’s the RWB’s Nutcracker season, I still cook enough seafood for about 15 people!

Greatest lesson from the pandemic:

We often talk about feeling the energy of the audience on stage, but until the public was completely absent from the hall last year, I don’t feel that I truly understood the power that the audience has over a performance. The audience truly inspires us on stage to then hopefully inspire them back!


4. Tracy Dahl — opera singer

Favourite Christmas memory:

Spencer Dunanson wishes that we will emerge from the confines of this pandemic having a greater appreciation of family, friends, others and life itself.

That is a tough question because there are too many. I love Christmas! But I think it may have to be the first Christmas we had a baby in the family, my niece Stacey (Nattrass). She came home on Christmas Day. How can one beat that?

Favourite Christmas carol:

It’s probably a tie between O Come All Ye Faithful — it has a great descant and I love singing with Stacey when we have family gatherings. The other is Angels We Have Heard on High. I adore the lower harmony in that one, and I always sing the mezzo line when we sing it together.

Favourite holiday tradition:

Poems — tons and tons of really good and some bad poems. My father began the tradition of putting poems on each present to help you guess what was in it. Then my sister Kristin and her husband began taking it a step further and the poem became a carol. You had to sing your card… heaven help everyone if it was The 12 Days of Christmas!

What’s on your Dear Santa wish list this year?

A return to normal. Hope springs eternal. I want us all to get back to enjoying activities we all took for granted before the pandemic. The Bombers won the Grey Cup, so that was on my personal wish list. Go, Blue! My children are home with us so it feels like home again.


5. Stacey Nattrass — music educator/anthem singer for the Winnipeg Jets

Mike Sudoma / Winnipeg Free Press Files
WSO associate conductor Julian Pellicano makes an Italian seafood feast on Christmas Eve.

Favourite Christmas memory:

We used to visit my grandparents house every Christmas Eve. They held a large open-house carol sing-along for all their friends and family. The singing was glorious — I have some serious musical talent in my family — and the food and punch was delicious. It’s a memory so vivid to me that the sounds, sights and smells of those Christmas Eves are easy to recall.

Favourite carol:

It Came Upon a Midnight Clear. It just feels so good to sing this carol. It’s nostalgic in character and very melodious.

Dear Santa wish list:

I am hopeful for things to get back to where they once were for our professional and amateur arts communities, and also for our music educators. The music and arts sectors were tremendously impacted by the last 21 months. In addition, our music programs in the schools have seen immense challenges and many teachers are trying to rebuild their music programs against some tough obstacles.

Greatest lesson learned:

Kindness is everything. Empathy is everything. Everyone is struggling with something that you can’t see and it never hurts to be kind.


6. Andrew Balfour — composer/artistic director of Dead of Winter a cappella vocal ensemble

Soprano Tracy Dahl’s Christmas wish is for life to return to normal.

Favourite carol:

Growing up in the Anglican tradition, Christmas was a very special time in the choral sense. It was a busy time for choirboys in the lead-up to Christmas, but throughout my years, I’ve always had a special fondness for Lo, how a rose er blooming. Such a simple piece of music, but in its simplicity, it still remains a beautiful carol that captures for me both winter, and childhood memories

Favourite Christmas memory:

My favourite Christmas memory would once again be tied to being a young choirboy at All Saints Anglican Church. All day on Christmas Eve day, the smells of shortbread, our record player would be playing everything from Bing Crosby to Handel, we would take the afternoon to decorate the tree and living room, and then watch the Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College Cambridge on PBS before going to the Christmas Eve midnight service to sing gorgeous music, topped off with descents to all the hymns.

Dear Santa wish list:

Peace, true reconciliation towards all Indigenous peoples and an end to the global pandemic.


7. Mike Janzen — Jazz pianist/singer/arranger/composer

Stacey Nattrass.

Favourite Christmas memory:

Spending Christmas out at our uncle’s cabin on Shoal Lake would have to be right near the top. A number of years ago we ventured out to Shoal Lake during the Christmas break and discovered that under a few feet of snow lay the perfect ice rink. We spent a number of hours clearing the snow off of the lake and the end result was some great shinny, as well as a number of thundering body-checks into the shovelled banks.

Story No. 2: A number of years ago I volunteered at a drop-in center for homeless youth here in Toronto, and was asked to help out on Christmas Day. I was feeling slightly sorry for myself as I had never spent the 25th away from my family; however, that was soon forgotten as I saw the dozens of youth who were living on the street file into the building. Each face carried with it a story of abandonment, loneliness, loss, and…resilience. My own feeling of sadness was met with smiles and deep appreciation and suddenly being far from home was exactly the right place to be.

Favourite Christmas carol:

Thou Who Was Rich Beyond All Splendour. In a power-hungry world where rulers so often lead with brashness and arrogance, this simple French carol talks about what true power can look like.

Greatest lesson learned:

So much great art has been produced during very difficult seasons, and so in some ways it’s no surprise that so many new projects began during these last two years. The pandemic hasn’t shut down music or art… if anything, I think it’s helped to kick-start a new wave of music that will hit the airwaves in the years to follow.


8. Angela Birdsell — WSO executive director

Dead of Winter’s Andrew Balfour has fond memories of being a choirboy at All Saints Anglican Church.

Favourite Christmas memory:

When I was a kid, we had those Swedish Christmas Angel Chimes. Little brass angels were suspended on a post above laterally positioned fan blades. Light four small candles below and the fan would turn the angels, which would turn and chime two bells. I was always excited when that decoration came out, and I’d sit and watch it until the candles burned down.

Favourite carol/song:

Angels We Heard on High because of the harmonies, which we loved. But the Huddersfield choir recording of Handel’s Messiah was a favourite in our house, once we were introduced to the oratorio in my early teens.

Greatest lesson learned:

To “keep it real.” We’ve all undergone change, in some cases, stress and hardship during the pandemic. I think people have become much more accepting of imperfection and the fact that as humans we are fallible and fall down (and can live without a manicure or perfect hair!). I think the pandemic has prompted many people to reflect on what really matters, and what might be considered superfluous.


9. Patricia Evans — WSO principal horn

Favourite carol/song:

Singer-songwriter Don Amero: ‘There’s always peace and joy and love and hope in all seasons.’

I love playing Sleigh Ride with the orchestra! I think my love of this piece goes all the way back to high school band. My other favourite is Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. Meet Me in Saint Louis is one of my favourite movies, and I just find that song to be so poignant.

Favourite holiday tradition:

We are all musicians in my family, so definitely singing Christmas carols around the piano.

What do you look forward most to over the holidays?

I always look forward to playing Nutcracker with the RWB. Right from the first few bars of the overture I just feel so overwhelmed with happiness and gratitude! I really missed that last year.


10. Andrew Thomson — executive director, Virtuosi Concerts

Jazz arranger/composer Mike Janzen recalls family Christmases spent at his uncle’s cabin.

Favourite Christmas memory:

On Christmas Eve, I would wait expectantly for my grandfather Dick Cooke, who was heavily involved in the Men’s Music Club and the music festival movement both in Winnipeg and across Canada, to come over to our house on Harvard prior to the midnight service at St. George’s. Grampa would come in and sit with my mum Phyllis in the glow of the Christmas tree — always with a glass of scotch or rye in hand.

Favourite Christmas music

Two pieces of choral music come to mind, both by British composer Kenneth Leighton. The first, Lullay, Lulla, thou little tiny child, an unaccompanied carol that my dad’s choir at St. George’s often sang as part of the annual Nine Lessons and Carols service. It is stunningly beautiful work for soprano and choir. My mum would always be asked to sing the solo line, and whenever I hear this piece, I recall the hauntingly beautiful music and my mum’s pure and effortless tone floating over the choir. The other, O Leave Your Sheep, has an organ accompaniment that displayed the terrific organ at St. George’s and my dad’s gift for selecting the perfect combination of stops.


11. Spencer Duncanson, artistic director, Little Opera Company

Handel’s Messiah was a Christmas tradition in the home of Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra executive director Angela Birdsell.

Favourite carol:

See Amid the Winter’s Snow, as arranged by Dan Forrest for SATB choir, string quartet and percussion. It epitomizes the essence of Christmas with its reverent, mystical orchestration, the powerful lyrics, the melody and the harmony are so skilfully administered, leaving you with a sense of the Divine.

Favourite holiday tradition:

Along with preparing dinner for friends and family, it’s to attend Christmas Eve services at Saint Thomas Church when I am in New York, or the candlelight service at Grace Bible Church here in Winnipeg. They have an exquisite boys’ choir who augment the candlelight service in a stunning edifice that is acoustically sound.

Dear Santa wish list:

My wish is that we will emerge from the confines of this pandemic having a greater appreciation of family, friends, others and life itself. I hope that through our arts we will be able to play a healing role in our divided world.


12. Don Amero — singer-songwriter/storyteller

Patricia Evans, principal horn with the WSO, looks forward to playing Nutcracker with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet each year.

Favourite Christmas memory:

I’d have to say it was 10 years ago, the year my son was born. He was born two weeks before my Christmas show and was in the hospital with his mama. I talked it over with my family and we decided that it was best to continue the show. I was heartbroken that they wouldn’t be there that evening but lo and behold, a Christmas miracle happened, and just before the intermission they showed up. I stopped the show, ran to the back of the room and gave them hugs and kisses. Not a dry eye was left in the house that night.

Favourite carol/song:

Bing Crosby‘s White Christmas. It’s funny because I didn’t really grow up with that song but whenever anyone says sing a Christmas song, that’s the first one that comes to mind. I also really love that classic Christmas music sound.

A final message from Don:

These are hard times, and while it’s hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel, I believe that there’s always peace and joy and love and hope in all seasons. So no matter what you’re going through, always look for that light.

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