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Christmas on Fifth Avenue with the Saint Thomas Boys Choir

St Thomas Boys Choir, St. Thomas Church, 12/14/23When it comes to live performance, many of us have our annual holiday traditions here in NYC. For some, it's Handel's Messiah; for others, it's The Nutcracker at NY City Ballet, or one of the five daily performances of the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall. But, for me, it just isn't Christmas in New York without the annual concert by the acclaimed Boys of the Saint Thomas Choir at Saint Thomas Church, an oasis of calm in the center of the chaotic Fifth Avenue shopping corridor.

When I first started attending this concert twenty years ago, Director of Music John Scott would perform an astonishing double-duty, leading the boys in Britten's Ceremony of Carols before taking his place behind the organ console to perform Messiaen's 70-minute meditation, La Nativité du Seigneur. Sadly, that tradition ended with Scott's untimely death in 2015, although his successor Daniel Hyde - now the Director of Cambridge's renowned King College Choir - would continue the annual tradition of performing Britten's Ceremony, which dates back to the 1970's. (Hyde did perform the Messiaen once, on a separate recital in December 2018.)

For this year's concert, which was completely sold out, Director of Music Jeremy Filsell dispensed with both the Britten and Messiaen, choosing instead a custom program of carols generally from the English tradition, both traditional and contemporary. On Thursday, the boys were accompanied by the string players of Juilliard's Music Advancement Program under their director Catherine Birke, as well as by Saint Thomas' Associate Organist Nicolas Haigh (who performed La Nativité du Seigneur in a near-empty nave in December 2020.)

Jeremy Filsell with Saint Thomas Boys Choir, 12/14/23
Photo: Scott Heins, Juilliard

It was a well-meaning gesture to invite the young musicians of MAP, an extracurricular program for local students ages 8-18, offering them an opportunity to shine next to their contemporaries in the Saint Thomas Choir. But, the unfortunate reality is that they performed on completely different planes: while the Saint Thomas Choir - easily the best boys' choir in the U.S. and one of the finest in the world - was note-perfect and transcendent throughout, the young MAP players struggled, most apparently during the instrumentals (Telemann's Concerto for Two Violettas; Villa-Lobos' Cantilena from String Quartet No. 1.)

The concert opened with the choir processing in to the Gregorian antiphon Hodie Christus natus est ("Today Christ is Born") which Britten also uses to open his Ceremony of Carols. (Britten was represented on the program with his rarely-heard New Year Carol, which was more pensive than celebratory.) Most of the highlights were the newer carols, including John Rutter's sublime What sweeter Music, an evergreen of the annual Festival of Lessons and Carols from Kings College, Bruce Neswick's haunting, astringent I sing of a Maiden and Bob Chilcott's bright, sparkling This Joy. Among the older carols, the standout was C.V. Stanford's Song of Wisdom, which the young trebles sang with total assurance, accompanied by Haigh's powerful, penetrating organ. The concert ended on a festive note with the traditional carols Angels We Have Heard on High and The Twelve Days of Christmas.

Saint Thomas Choir, 12/14/23
Photo: Scott Heins, Juilliard

If you missed last week's concert, there are still plenty of opportunities to hear the Saint Thomas Choir this last week before Christmas, all free of charge.