Choral Riffs – Santa Barbara Master Chorale presents annual Christmas concert

Eric Isaacs/News-Press File Photo
Eric Isaacs/News-Press File Photo

For Steven Hodson, the music director and conductor of Santa Barbara Master Chorale, Christmas holds many childhood memories.

“The church I grew up in had a tremendous amount of music,” he says. “And of course I remember all the presents under the tree. But musically, I was surrounded by traditional music.”

For the chorale’s Christmas concert, Sunday at the Unitarian Society, the group will surround the audience in the final moments for a sing-along of everybody’s favorite carols. But before that, the 80-minute concert will be a trip through the lesser-known and underappreciated things. Still, Hodson says we may still know a lot from their familiar melodies.

“For me, the particular arrangement and setting of a carol is important,” Hodson says. “We tend not to do a traditional four-part hymnal arrangement. The setting we’ll do will have something of interest.”

The program features carols and holiday music from Europe, such as the French carol “Patapan,” the German traditional song “Es ist ein’ Ros entsprungen” and an Irish carol sung in Latin, “Angelus ad virginem.” Mary Dombeck solos on Philip Ledger’s “Still, Still, Still,” John Ireland’s “The Holy Boy” and Adolphe Adams’ “O Holy Night.”

The final piece comes by request of Hodson.

“I love that piece, and I love it in her voice,” he says.

There are also more modern carols, including Hector Berlioz’ “The Shepherds’ Farewell” and Gustav Holst’s “In the Bleak Mid-Winter.” And for those looking for the really familiar, rest assured that there will be “Jingle Bells.”

Mahlon Balderston, the organist emeritus at the Unitarian Church, will be there for an organ solo, as well.

Everything here has been written for the season, and Hodson says nobody will be too lost among unfamiliar music.

“There are certain pieces that are just seasonal, that sound like Christmas,” he says. “I don’t know why. I think there are melodic shapes ad harmonic progressions that we associate with the season.”

Singers also tend to put a smile and a holiday spirit in their voice, he says. It’s an element that infects the music.

“It’s like when someone smiles and says, ‘Happy holidays.’ There’s a certain color in the tone,” he says.

After the concert, Hodson hopes everybody will stay for the reception, where chorale members bring food that they’ve made or purchased. The food and the concert are a sort of nice alternative to the commercialization of the holiday seen everywhere else.

“To be able to go to a quiet sanctuary with gorgeous acoustics and listen to some beautiful singing … it’s a contrast to the muzak coming out of the corner of everyone’s lives.”

Hodson grew up in Portland, Ore., so his Christmas memories are also full of snow and chilly air, and even of his parents’ car sliding on the dangerous ice. When the temperatures drop in Santa Barbara, does he feel a nostalgic twinge?

“No, I really don’t like it,” he says. “I think I got spoiled living here. I honestly prefer a 70-degree Christmas Day now. Dreaming of a white Christmas is enough!”

When: 7 p.m. Sunday
Where: Unitarian Society of Santa Barbara, 1535 Santa Barbara St.
Cost: $20 general, $10 for kids 12 and under
Information: (805) 967-8287,

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