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The 'O Holy Night' Olympics

Last week I got to interview Kenny Rogers in advance of his concert here in Buffalo, which takes place tonight, Wednesday night, at Kleinhans Music Hall.

Kenny Rogers soars easily into my list of top 10 interviews of all time -- that is, the artists I have most enjoyed talking to. He is a darling, darling man. At least that is my impression from our phone conversation. When I hung up, I was laughing and Kenny was still talking. That was how much fun it was.

I am still laughing at the argument we had over the history of "O Holy Night." It's in the story -- it started because I had seen a clip of Kenny Rogers in Toronto -- that is it up above, at the top of this post -- in which he gave a history of the song that, while entertaining, was just wrong. And I took him to task for it. And he was such a good sport. By the way although I could not work it into the story, Kenny Rogers did laughingly tell me he would do more research.

Pursuant to that I got thinking about "O Holy Night." That is a polarizing Christmas carol. Polarizing, get it? North Pole? Ahem.

What I mean is, some people love it -- I am among them -- and some people hate it. If people hate it, it is usually because it could be called showy. Which it is, but in a wonderful way. Most of the Christmas carols everyone knows are centuries old, and "O Holy Night" dates to the 19th century. The composer, Adolphe Adam, was known for his light operas and knew how to showcase and challenge the human  voice. The song has these great leaps and thrilling high notes. It is so of its time, like Puccini's "Nessun Dorma."

Here is Jussi Bjorling, the great Swedish tenor, going full steam. This is a recording I absolutely cannot get over. The song just pouring out of him. It is like one of the wonders of the world.

That final high note, can you believe it? When I wrote "going full steam," I meant it. He starts out relatively low-key and then builds until you feel as if you are marveling at a gigantic, powerful locomotive working smoothly and perfectly. You would not think it was possible for a human being to sing like that! 

"O Holy Night" is also a showpiece for sopranos. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the legendary Leontyne Price. The richness and grace of Leontyne Price's voice makes this especially thrilling. 

Sing it, Maestra! That video makes me nostalgic. Growing up in the '70s, I remember it was not opera until they brought out Leontyne Price, wearing some extravagant opera costume and, usually, an extravagant Afro. What a striking presence and a striking voice.

There are marvelous voices in pop music and I love it when these singers, like their classical counterparts, soar like eagles and tackle "O Holy Night." The only thing is, I believe you should not cheat. You must nail the high notes. Johnny Mathis does.

Johnny Mathis puts his own creative spin on the end of the song that does not take away from its virtuosity. Bravo!

I know we already had a tenor, Jussi Bjorling, but we have to include Mario Lanza, we just have to.

Dear Mario. That is marvelous! The way he sings: "And the soul felt its worth." Then the chorus comes in. These people really take the song at a good clip. A wonderful, classic recording.

It is tempting to go on like this all day, listening to various versions of "O Holy Night."

You could do worse!

-- Mary Kunz Goldman

 

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