Spreading holiday cheer with music

ALPENA – Whether it’s neighborhood carolling or listening to a favorite holiday album while decorating the Christmas tree, carols and holiday-themed songs have a wide appeal.

The Music Director for WATZ-FM, a community chorus director and Alpena High School’s choral director all agree: Christmas music brings back good memories and are part of holiday traditions. Whether it’s traditional carols, classical works or more modern compositions, these songs have a way of putting people into a festive spirit.

“From my perspective, it goes deep back into my roots as a small child,” AHS Choral Director Jean Brown said. “Christmas music is music that pull up traditions, family traditions for me. Speaking from being raised in a church environment, I grew up listening to Christmas carols, I grew up carolling.”

Brown’s students are getting ready to spread some holiday cheer of their own, she said. They’re in the process of rehearsing for their annual December concert, and will sing carols in the hall on the last day of school before Christmas break.

The season gives Brown’s students exposure to different kinds of music, including religious songs. It’s part of a well-rounded musical education, and they enjoy them both for the challenge and the happy moods they bring.

“They like it, we’ve been working on some very difficult music,” she said. “We’re doing part of Handel’s ‘Messiah’ for concert choir. It’s very challenging music, it’s usually sung by adult choirs.”

Despite some grumblings about the difficult music, Brown’s students love the holidays and the music that goes with them, she said.

So too do audiences for the Thunder Bay Arts Council Community Chorus. Director Jim Hart said people come back year after year to listen, and some of them tell him the concert gets them ready for the holidays.

Hart’s had Christmas music in his life since he was young. As a college-educated choral leader who directed church choirs and taught for Alpena Schools, he’s heard the music plenty of times. Now 26 years after his retirement, he still enjoys the songs.

“I think it has to do with the whole season,” he said. “It’s like gift-giving and going to church for the Advent season of church. Many celebrate all of these things. I think the music of Christmas is part of all of these activities.”

The community chorus will once again start out with parts of “Messiah,” the chorus’s own tradition, Hart said. Musicians will sing more recent compositions for the second half, including some of Benjamin Britten’s works. This year would be the late composer’s 100th birthday.

Modern holiday songs get plenty of air time on WATZ-FM, a country music station broadcasting in Alpena, Music Director Phil Wenzel said. The station starts playing holiday music after Thanksgiving, building slowly until the week before Christmas.

“We focus a lot on, obviously, country acts,” he said. “A lot of them are kind of hokey, goofy stuff that a country audience likes.”

The station plays some traditional, religious songs here and there, Wenzel said. As the holiday approaches, they’ll play more and more of these songs. Some older classics, like Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” and Gene Autry’s “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” get airplay as well.

Much like WATZ’s Polish music show on Sundays, Christmas music evokes times past and traditions of old, Wenzel said.

“A lot of that brings back memories of everybody’s Busha (grandmother), of spending Christmas at their house,” he said. “It behooves us to play that. It’s good for us to play that and rekindle peoples’ memories of years gone by.”

Jordan Travis can be reached via email at jtravis@thealpenanews.com or by phone at 358-5688. Follow Jordan on Twitter @jt_alpenanews. Read his blog, A Snowball’s Chance, at www.thealpenanews.com.