I first heard of them while living in Baltimore, the Christmas Revels that friends participated in down in Washington.
But it wasn’t until I moved to New Hampshire that the event came into focus, first through live broadcast previews of that year’s Boston production and then through actually attendance at Sanders Theatre at Harvard.
Revels, you ask?
I initially thought of something along the lines of a glee club, but what I discovered was much more elaborate – gorgeously costumed stagings blending solo, instrumental, and children’s and adult choral music, dance, comedy, a mummers play (skit, actually), audience singing, and a story narrative. The closest event to it I knew of was the annual madrigal dinners back in college, but rather than repeating an Elizabethan theme each year, the Revels create a lively story around a particular culture in time and place. One year focused on Leonardo da Vinci’s Italy; another, Armenia and neighboring Georgia; and then Appalachian, Scottish, Irish, French-Canadian, and colonial Spanish themes also come to mind.
The events were the brainchild of folklorist John Langstaff, who launched the first public performance in 1971 in Greater Boston to draw people into a community-wide celebration of the season. It’s a great way to introduce children to live concert and theater without the second-class status of “children’s” attached. And they’re always joyful and fun.
This past winter, spring, and fall I was blessed with the opportunity to participate in the bass section of the Revels Singers, a community chorus that rehearses and performs music from the previous four decades of shows– not just the Christmas productions but other events throughout the year, ranging from the Middle Ages till now and including 15 or so languages at last count. The chorus for the Christmas shows, I must point add, is top-notch, by audition only. Having some of its members among us at our weekly sessions has been illuminating. And some of them wondered why I’d commute up to four hours for a two-hour rehearsal? OK, I try to make an outing of it. Still, it’s magical time when we’re together.
Meanwhile, how often do you get to watch a first-rate conductor and arranger like George Emlen behind the scenes? We soon recognized that within his light-hearted approach were some very high standards and matching expectations, and we’ve felt ourselves rising more and more toward them.
This year’s Christmas show is The Road to Compostela, focusing on the Galician region of Spain and its famed pilgrimage. If you can’t get tickets to any of the 16 performances, there’s always the CD. And, yes, we’re going right after Christmas Day itself.