Written by Thomas Catlaw.
For many music lovers in the Valley of the Sun, it just isn’t Christmas until they’ve heard the Phoenix Chorale sing.
The Chorale, now recognized as one of the leading vocal ensembles in North America, has been warming Arizona hearts and ears at the holidays since 1958. This year, the group welcomes renowned conductor Dr. André J. Thomas for an inspired, family-friendly program that draws from across the traditions of American and European Christmas song and celebrates the spirit of the season.
Until his retirement this past spring, Dr. André J. Thomas was the Owen F. Sellers Professor of Music, Director of Choral Activities, and Professor of Choral Music Education at Florida State University, where he taught for over 30 years. He is one of the premier choir conductors and educators in the United States. Jen Rogers, CEO of the Chorale, recalls, “I’ll never forget telling [the choir] that Dr. Thomas is coming and the singers gasping in surprise and shock. They were so excited! To get to work with legendary conductors that bring light and passion, real inspirational music making, it’s really meaningful for the singers.”
The rich program that Thomas brings to the Valley this holiday season reflects his broad, decades long experience in choral music and the range of styles in holiday music. Thomas explains, “It covers the diversities, the complexities … [of] my musical make up.”
For Thomas, the program also embodies the essence of the season and the unique potential of music itself. “Christmas,” he says, “is about the world. From France to England to America, all around the world. From music of slaves to music of aristocrats. That is the special thing about music, that it knows no barriers—racial barriers, economic barriers, social barriers. Music crosses all of those things. And what better time to celebrate it than at the time of the Christ child’s birth.”
The December concerts open with French composer Francis Poulenc’s Four Motets for Christmas. Composed following the death of a close friend and the reawakening of Poulenc’s faith, these intricate, atmospheric motets have been described as four exquisite, brightly colored altar panels. The enchanting Jesu Carols by the great American composer Stephen Paulus are another highlight of the first half of the program. With harp accompanying the Chorale, Thomas says, “Just sit back and relax and listen to the beauty of it. . . . I love the music of Stephen Paulus and I think this is one of his great pieces.”
The second half of the program draws from the evocative American gospel and folk traditions. “We’ll do my arrangement of the spiritual Go Where I Send Thee and that’s going to rock! . . . [It] has a gospel orientation and that’s when I’m probably going to sit down at the piano and bring it on the other side of town for a moment!” Thomas will also lead an arrangement of Shout for Joy that he prepared for the St. Olaf Choir’s Christmas festival. (St. Olaf Choir Director Dr. Anton Armstrong led the Phoenix Chorale last Christmas. Armstrong and Thomas have been friends and collaborators for more than 40 years.)
There are traditional holiday favorites, too, like The First Noel, Ding Dong Merrily on High, and Silent Night. Thomas laughs, “There has got to be a Silent Night!”
Reflecting on the meaning of the holidays, Thomas says, “Christmas always represents for me a second chance. The end of the year and it’s a chance to have a little bit of joy before we begin the new one. And I think that’s what people want to feel. And they want to feel the comfort of home.”