ALBUM REVIEW: Holiday Harmonies: Songs of Christmas 

by Maggie Molloy


There is a time and a place for the thousands of corny pop renditions of Christmas carols that exist in this world—but Second Inversion is not that place. In honor of the impending holidays, this week we’re highlighting a choral Christmas album with a little more spice.

Essential Voices USA’s new album “Holiday Harmonies: Songs of Christmas” presents a lush musical tapestry of traditional Christmas favorites punctuated by fresh new holiday carols by contemporary composers Jennifer Higdon, Nico Muhly, and Gene Gilroy. Plus sparkling new choral arrangements of each of the Christmas classics adds a dash of new-music magic to the mix of traditional carols.

The result is a short, sweet, magical, and merry collection of Christmas carols that clocks in at just over 20 minutes. But don’t worry—your holiday guests won’t mind if you play it on repeat.

Released on Sono Luminus earlier this fall, the album showcases the talents of the acclaimed Essential Voices USA chorus conducted by Judith Clurman. Featured performers include mezzo soprano Jamie Barton, soprano Maureen McKay, pianist Tedd Firth, and harpist Stacey Shames.

Within the first minutes of the album, the choir takes us straight to the heavens with their sweet and tender rendition of “Angels We Have Heard on High,” elegantly accompanied by Firth on piano. “O Holy Night” follows with the choir’s rich blend of voices shimmering above a delicate harp backdrop.

Mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton’s voice soars with beautiful sincerity over a chorus of angels in “Silent Night,” and she sways just as gracefully over a muted piano accompaniment in the lesser-known lullaby, “The Virgin’s Slumber Song.”

Jennifer Higdon’s new composition, “Love Came Down,” comes to life with the elegant vocals of Maureen McKay, who recently sang the soprano lead in Seattle Opera’s production of Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers.” Her gorgeous voice soars with precision and grace, at once expressive and effortless above the delicate choral and harp accompaniment.

Nico Muhly’s choral composition, “Whispered and Revealed,” is the most experimental carol on the album, though it is no less charming than the others. The bittersweet text comes from a poem published in 1863 by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow titled “Snow-Flakes.” Harp arpeggios embody the delicately falling snow, while rich, iridescent vocals bring a fireside warmth to the piece. The result is a shimmering musical sentiment that just might outshine the Christmas classics.

The piece is followed by Gene Gilroy’s “Merry Christmas Wishing Well,” a sweet and sincere new musical work disguised as a traditional Christmas carol. Gorgeous, lush vocal harmonies glisten above a gentle piano accompaniment, reminiscent of the caroling days of yore.

The album ends with unaccompanied choral rendition of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” adapted by conductor Judith Clurman. It’s the icing on the cake—or rather, the sparkling star on top of the Christmas tree. Either way, the album is a Christmas essential.