2022 Staff & Musician Holiday Music Picks
Music is such an important part of every holiday. Everyone has their favorites. In this blog post, we’re going to feature some of our staff member’s picks. Please note that staff members are listed in alphabetical order by last name.
Cindy and Tony Ellis (Flute/Piccolo and Trumpet)
Favorite Piece: “Now is The Caroling Season” by Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians
Why is this your favorite piece: Tony and I LOVE Christmas! Because our schedule is very busy at the holiday time, we decorate the day after Thanksgiving…outside lights (naturally, life size angels playing flute and trumpet) and indoors…mantel garland, tree, the works! I try to include a touch of Christmas in EVERY room of the house. Even the kitchen: I made a fabulous garland for the kitchen light soffit during the pandemic that even lights up. I adore performing for ABT’s Nutcracker every year…it’s a beautiful score and I enjoy seeing all the families coming to performances, with their kids dressed to the hilt in party dresses and little suits is so much fun. I can feel the excitement of Christmas through their eyes and I look forward to every performance!
Something special about this piece: When I grew up, my dad had quite the record collection. I remember him putting on the record of Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians…all a cappella vocal music. The name of the album was Now is The Caroling Season and I listened to that over and over as a young girl. I still love it. Although I love instrumental music, choral music for me are truly cherished sounds of the season.
Dennis Kim (Concertmaster)
Favorite Piece: “Sextet (2010) for Clarinet, Strings and Piano” by Sheridan Seyfried, III. Con spirito
Performed by: Soojin Huh, clarinet, Dennis Kim, Elly Suh, violins, Poleum Cho, viola, Jonah Kim, cello, Sheridan Seyfried, piano
Why is this your favorite piece: This piece isn’t traditionally Christmas or holiday, but it always puts me in a festive mood!
Doug Basye (Assistant Principal Bass)
Favorite Piece: “Unto Us a Child is Born” by George Frideric Handel
Why is this your favorite piece: In December, 2001, I was playing a performance of “The Messiah.” I called home at intermission and was told to get back ASAP. I arrived around 10 p.m., we went straight to the hospital and my son, Aaron, was born at 2:19 a.m. on December 15. I stayed with them for the next day and then went back for the final performance. It was only then that I realized that one of the last pieces I had played before leaving was “Unto Us a Child is Born.”
Daniel Reynolds (Artistic Services Manager)
Favorite Piece: “Hey Santa” by Carrie & Wendy Wilson
Why is this your favorite piece: I think it’s a well-crafted pop song. I like the robust back-beat and vocal duo interplay in the chorus.
Something special about this piece: Less common, I suppose, for holiday music, and the music video from 1993 is hilarious—slapstick bordering on satire.
Lindsay Mack (Social Media & Content Associate)
Favorite Piece: “Silent Night” by Franz Xaver Gruber
Why is this your favorite piece: I’ve always loved Christmas music and have been known to sing Christmas tunes sporadically year-round at home. “Silent Night” is beautiful and elegant in its simple yet eloquent encapsulation of the meaning of Christmas, and that places it at the top of my list.
Something special about this piece: “Silent Night” is the first Christmas I’ve sung live in concert, so this song will always have a special place in my heart.
Bella Sunshine (Senior Director of Operations)
Favorite Piece: “Maoz Tzur”
Why is this your favorite piece: I enjoy this instrumental arrangement best because the melody is beautiful, but the poetic text summarizes challenges faced by the Jewish people that have been overcome with God’s help. Including the miracle of Hannukah! This is my favorite picture of me during Hannukah! It’s from December 2016 the morning of the Nutcracker for Kids, when a human-sized dreidel used to make an appearance onstage with Santa
Something special about this piece: The song is called “Maoz Tzur,” translated to “Rock of Ages,” and we sing it often after lighting the menorah each night.
Dr. Jacob Sustaita (Music Director, Pacific Symphony Youth Orchestra & Assistant Conductor of Pacific Symphony)
Favorite Piece: I have 2 all-time favorite Christmas Songs. One upbeat and one that’s more ballad and soulful.
“All I Want for Christmas” by Mariah Carey
I don’t remember exactly when this song came out, but it is one of my family’s favorite tunes. We all blast it in the car, at home, or in our holiday playlist that we secretly listen to at the gym. There is something so joyful and perfect in the music and lyrics. It just gets me in the holiday mood immediately.
“That Spirit of Christmas” by Ray Charles
I love National Lampoons Christmas Vacation. When Aunt Bethany arrives at the Griswold house for dinner, I am rolling on the floor in laughter. There’s a great scene when Clark gets trapped in the attic of his house while the rest of the family goes for some last-minute shopping at the mall. Once he puts a few extra layers on, he comes across some old family films. It’s a very sweet moment in the movie – Clark with a tear in his eye as he watches these old family movies, and the this is accompanied by Ray Charles singing “That Spirit of Christmas.” I wondered why the radio stations didn’t play this song during the holidays, so I did some hunting and found a CD of the original 1985 complete Ray Charles Christmas Album. And this song always brings a tear to my eye too Clark!
Jean Oelrich (Director of Communications)
Favorite Piece: “Mille Cherubini in Coro” by Franz Schubert
Why is this your favorite piece: The great tenor Luciano Pavarotti has long been a favorite singer of mine. I’ve recently been studying Italian and listening to Pavarotti sing is like a master class in perfect pronunciation for the language. He grew up in Northern Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region in the city of Modena, and he had a beautiful, musical accent. His holiday album Christmas with Pavarotti is a longtime staple of the musical soundtrack for my holidays. If I had to pick just one selection from that recording, it would be “Mille Cherubini in Coro.” It’s actually a lullaby that was composed by Franz Schubert. There are German lyrics (“Schlafe, schlafe, holder, süßer Knabe” or in English “Sleep, sleep, dear sweet boy”), but I prefer the Italian version. The English translation begins “A thousand cherubs in chorus smile at you from heaven.”
Something special about this piece: Every time I hear this song, it always conjures up such a sweet image in my mind of thousands of little angels sending divine wishes earthward for a serene and beautiful Christmas. It reminds me of the many beautiful celestial beings that you see so often in Renaissance art, similar to the dear little cherubs in Raphael’s “Sistine Madonna.”
Kathryn Mudgway (Marketing & Public Relations Associate)
Favorite Piece: “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”
Why is this your favorite piece: It’s always hard picking a favorite, but this year’s mention goes to “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” Particularly Celtic Woman’s rendition from their 2019 The Magic of Christmas album. As someone who has been following the group since 2005, I love how they continue to grow musically and together. Their year-round music is great but there’s something special about each of their Christmas albums. Their version of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” features soprano Mairéad Carlin. It starts with a beautiful uilleann pipe solo before fading into Mairéad’s entrance. Both backed by a choir and orchestra. This piece made me come to a full stop when I went through The Magic of Christmas album for the first time three years ago. It has been a favorite ever since. Use headphones and block everything out. Happy holidays!
Something special about this piece: In addition to Mairead’s vocals, listen for the beautiful uilleann pipes performed by Darragh Murphy.
Heather Arias de Cordoba (Associate Director of Publications & Content)
Favorite Piece: “Mele Kalikimaka” by R. Alex Anderson
Why is this your favorite piece: For eight years, I was so fortunate to live and work in Hawai‘i. I was the director of marketing and patron experience for the Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra, and in my time there, I worked with so many incredible musicians and artists.
Something special about this piece: The holidays are different on-island with warm tropical breezes, family luaus, slippahs instead of stockings and Santa arriving by outrigger canoe. As the saying goes, you can take the girl out of Hawai‘i, but you can’t take Hawai‘i out of the girl – my holiday music pick is “Mele Kalikimaka,” not the familiar Bing Crosby version, but an island favorite from Grammy-nominated local artist Josh Tatofi. Mele Kalikimaka and Hau’oli Makahiki Hou!
Kurt Mortensen (Director of Audience Engagement)
Favorite Piece: “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” by Ryuichi Sakamoto
Why is this your favorite piece: There are a number of musical elements to which I tend to be drawn. Among these are hauntingly gorgeous melodies and repetition. Both feature heavily in “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence,” which has become an unlikely cult Christmas classic. The song centers around a very mournful and completive pentatonic-based melody, suggesting an old Japanese folk tune. The music feels so nostalgic and has an intense sense of longing, so much that even the first-time listener has a sense of déjà vu, swearing they’ve heard it before while they ponder some deep and emotional distant memory. It has a tragically beautiful mood, suggesting some profound struggle, but yet somehow juxtaposed with a sense of hope and optimism. Its sentimentality is so universal that as the listener reflects, he or she conjures their own personal meaning behind the melancholy, which is probably a good thing because the original story is dark. This piece gives you “the feels.”
Something special about the piece: This is not a traditional Christmas song by any means, but it has an interesting backstory. Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is a 1983 war film based around a story of forgiveness and understanding between Eastern and Western cultures taking place in a Japanese prisoner of war camp in Java during World War II. It features the musicians Ryuichi Sakamoto and David Bowie in the lead acting roles. Sakamoto composed the soundtrack, which is considered by many to be one of the finest electronic scores of the period, rivaling those of Vangelis classics like Chariots of Fire and Blade Runner. In fact, it’s really the strength of the soundtrack that has created any lasting interest in the film (well that and Bowie fans interested in the more esoteric parts of his career), though the film still has its ardent advocates. While the strength of main theme of the movie, the self-titled track “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” is a focal point of the soundtrack, the piece was reworked from an instrumental into a song called “Forbidden Colours” with singer/songwriter David Sylvian and also included on the soundtrack. Sylvian’s career began in the late 70s fronting the British band Japan, a group that never found mainstream popularity in the West, but was hugely influential to many of the new wave bands of the 80s. In fact, one could argue that Duran Duran began where Japan left off in both their visual look and musical style, though Japan were a bit more avant-garde. In any case, as Sylvian began to pursue a solo career after Japan broke up in 1982, he was approach by Ryuichi Sakamoto to add lyrics to “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence.” Sylvian penned the words to “Forbidden Colours” and set them to a counter melody, which ultimately resulted in the most popular version of this music. Ironically, David Bowie has been an early influence on Sylvian so it’s a weird twist of fate that Sylvian would end up creating music for a film David Bowie acted in and had otherwise no musical involvement. There are so many wonderful arrangements of both “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” and “Forbidden Colours” ranging from electronic to orchestral/chamber to pop music versions. I have listed several below including the originals and some favorites. Of all of these, for me, nothing beats David Sylvian singing “Forbidden Colours” but I’m a bit biased as Sylvian is among my favorite vocalists.
While not the original version, this is an orchestral arrangement with Sakamoto at the piano, juxtaposed with clips from the film.
2016 World Soundtrack Awards: Ryuichi Sakamoto plays “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence”
Perhaps my favorite version of “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” is by the California Guitar Trio from their A Christmas Album (2004). The multiple guitars almost sound like a harpsichord: Major Christmas vibes on this one!
California Guitar Trio: “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence”
Here’s the original electronic version featured in the score.
“Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” from the Soundtrack
Sylvian and Sakamoto did two studio versions of “Forbidden Colours,” one which was more electronic like the original soundtrack and one that was more “organic,” I prefer the latter, which is included here.
David Sylvian & Ryuichi Sakamoto “Forbidden Colours”
Classical Saxophonist Simon Haram (Principal Saxophone with the London Sinfonietta and Professor of Saxophone at the Royal Academy of Music) arranged a really cool chamber version of “Forbidden Colours” on his album Frame (2001) with the Duke String Quartet. It’s out of print, but you can hear samples below. It may be available on some streaming services so look for it on yours. Haram writes in the liner notes, “Sakamoto’s purity with Sylvian melancholy. Once heard, never forgotten.”
There are many versions out there by a wide range of artists. For example, Lang Lang did a solo piano version of “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” on his Piano Book album (2018), while classical crossover soprano Sarah Brightman recorded a cover of “Forbidden Colours” in 2003 for a special tour CD that you could only buy at her concerts.
KUSC’s online channel “A Classical California Christmas” is streaming 24 hours a day on demand. You can enjoy classical holiday favorites and comfort, joy, and peace whenever your spirit needs a lift. Available only on KUSC.org and the station’s free Smartphone apps.