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Ragazzi’s Busy Holiday Schedule Explores Immigrant Heritage

November 19, 2019

Ragazzi Boys Chorus explores cultural ideas through music in “Celebrations of the Season: Stories of Our Immigrant Heritage,” performing works from Poland, Ireland, Italy, Mexico, China, and Africa.

“Celebrations of the Season” — with the participation of Ragazzi’s Avanti, Concert Group, and Young Men’s Ensemble — will be performed on Dec. 7 in Palo Alto, Dec. 8 in San Francisco, and Dec. 15 in Burlingame.

Meanwhile, “graduates” of the chorus, Ragazzi Continuo, offer the holiday concert series “Winter Wonderland” on Dec. 15 in Redwood City, Dec. 21 in Palo Alto, and Dec. 22 in San Francisco.

The diverse holiday program ranges from Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler’s “Stormy Weather” to a Mozart canon to popular holiday classics such as “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Walking in a Winter Wonderland,” and “Frosty the Snowman.”

The winter concerts celebrate Ragazzi Artistic Director Joyce Keil, a cofounder of the chorus, who will retire at the end of the season, her 33rd year in charge. Keil shares conducting with incoming Artistic Director Kent Jue (Avanti) and Travis Rogers (Young Men’s Ensemble).

Keil is responsible for the theme of the “Stories of Our Immigrant Heritage” concerts, based on an essay she read about early 20th-century immigrants, their ambivalence (excited about America’s opportunities, but missing home), and their contributions to American music. For example, the Irish rhythms and how they invented tap dancing, the pentatonic scale of Chinese music, the distinctive Mexican rhythms, the soulful yearning of the Polish people.

The concerts also feature traditional seasonal songs, including “Gloucestershire Wassail,” an English carol arranged by an American, and “Noël Nouvelet,” a French carol arranged by Sofia Söderberg.

Giovanni Gabrieli’s O magnum mysterium and Alan Spedding’s Dormi Jesu will give listeners the opportunity to explore Italian musical ideas representative of both the Italian (Venetian) Baroque period and of a more modern Italy.

Known for his creative expansion of several musical styles, German composer Hans Leo Hassler is credited for bringing the expressive and colorful musical style of the Italian Renaissance to Germany. His four-part a cappella setting of “Cantate Domino” will be performed by the Young Men’s Ensemble.

Set to the Latin “Pulchra es, amica mea” text from Song of Solomon, Ola Gjeilo’s “Northern Lights” is inspired by the beauty of the aurora borealis as seen by the composer from his attic outside of Oslo, Norway.

Chinese composer Qu Xixian’s “Pastoral” is a wistful, longing arrangement of an Eastern Mongolian sheepherding song. Characterizations of Mongolian pastoral songs include an abundance of ornamentation, falsetto, a long and continuously flowing melody with rich rhythmical variation, an extremely wide vocal range, and a free compositional form. These songs typically praise the beauty of the steep mountains and rivers, or the love for parents or close friends, expressing reflections on human destiny.

Also featured in the program is Portuguese-Mexican composer Gaspar Fernández’s 17th-century motet from Mexico, “Xicochi, xicochi.” Largely written in the Nahuatl language, this piece illustrates the indigenous Nahua culture’s influence on colonial Spanish music.

Sprinkled with Gaelic mythology, Joseph Campbell and Herbert Hughes’s collaborative piece, “The Gartan Mother’s Lullaby,” is a favorite of many Irish singers. From the beauty of the haunting flute opening to the sweeping piano accompaniment, the melody of this Irish folk lullaby has been described as one of the duo’s “most perfect collaborations.” Boys from both the concert group and choral scholars will perform Neil Ginsberg’s arrangement.

The sounds of Africa will be brought to life with the bright, rhythmic African spiritual “Noel.” Composed by Todd Smith and arranged by Brad Holmes, Noel captures the feeling of a tribal celebration as it expresses the joy of the birth of Christ.

For the last part of the concert, audience members will be invited to join and sing along to familiar Christmas carols.

Janos Gereben appreciates news tips, corrections, and words of encouragement at [email protected].