troll the ancient yuletide carol

donna boyd of the center for old music in the world in rehearsal at st, michael's episcopal church. photo by herald-leader staff photographer mark cornelison.

donna boyd of the center for old music in the new world in rehearsal at st. michael's episcopal church. photo by herald-leader staff photographer mark cornelison.

It has long been designed as one of the final holiday celebrations in Lexington, a performance staged on the closest available Monday before Christmas. But this year, the Center for Old Music in the New World is really coming down to the yuletide wire.

On Monday, a mere three days before Christmas arrives, the organization devoted to the performance of early music presents a holiday concert of traditional carols and songs that has become a tradition unto itself.

For more than three decades, the center has presented A Handefull of Christmas Delights. The program defines “old music in the new world” by presenting medieval and Renaissance music that celebrates numerous aspects of the season. Lutes, recorders, viola da gambas and more bring the music to life. And there are voices. Many voices. They sing of the season, of the solstice and of celebration.

As such, A Handefull of Christmas Delights has become one of the most lovingly unspoiled of Lexington holiday celebrations. But squeezing it in with so little breathing room before Christmas itself – a time when seasonal stress seems to reach its zenith – is both a challenge and a reward for the performers.

“The fact we are almost always one of the very last events before Christmas is a challenge,” said Donna Boyd, director of the Center for Old Music in the New World and a veteran of all 30 previous Christmas Delights concerts. “Things get so frantic, and there is always so much to do. But people tell me when this concert comes around, it feels like it’s time to step back from all that and become part of a more peaceful celebration of the season.”

This year’s Christmas Delights concert will have a broadly European feel with emphasis on early carols and winter festival music composed from the 12th to the 15th century. “There is Czech music, Spanish music, Italian, German, Scandinavian, Scottish, French. … We just love to do a great mixture of things.”

The concert is rehearsed in sections. A band of five medieval instrumentalists rehearses separately from Boyd and a group of about a dozen vocalists. Soloists round out the performance. Several are Lexington professionals. Some even spend weekends delving into sounds vastly removed from the early music of Christmas Delights. Among that pack is John Hedger, who has been a featured lute soloist for more than 25 years with the center. But he is also one of Lexington’s most established blues guitarists. He leads Johnny Roy and the Rub Tones and is a guitar instructor at Transylvania University, Berea College and Centre College.

Hedger brought up one of the more immediate but unavoidable obstacles in performing music – any kind of music – at the heart of the holiday season: winter illness.

“Respiratory illnesses around this time of year can sometimes knock out a key singer in the group,” he said. “They become so ill that they absolutely cannot sing.

“Actually, two Christmases ago I was working hard, preparing my lute solo for the program, and came down with pneumonia. I had to cancel about two weeks before the program because I couldn’t continue practicing and preparing.”

But even in the mildest winter weather, a substantial level of chance surfaces in bringing the instrumental and vocal groups of Christmas Delights together. While each practices extensively on its own, joint rehearsal time is minimal.

“What we finally put together for the concert happens in one or two rehearsals,” Boyd said. “The ability of that to work really depends on people who are devoted to making music in any situation. You take a big risk doing things this way.”

Adding to the danger element is that Christmas Delights isn’t like The Nutcracker in that it doesn’t enjoy an extended run or even a repeat performance. It happens once.

“It’s not a tour,” Hedger said.

“There is only one chance for us to perform this music,” Boyd added. “Of course, that means there is only one chance for the audience to hear it, too.”

But above the physical and rehearsal demands of performing so close to Christmas is the motive for making the music in the first place. Boyd doesn’t want Christmas Delights to be viewed, as she terms it, as “an antiquarian kind of thing.”

The sounds and songs might be centuries old, but she is devoted making the music alive and in-the-moment.

“This is living music to us, and I think that is communicated to the audience,” she said. “After all, they are there. They are part of this living thing.

“Music exists in the performance and in the connection between the audience and the performers as it happens. That’s a real creative synthesis right there. All of this comes together, especially at Christmastime. But that’s partly because the audience brings such a special spirit of its own.

“What we’re presenting isn’t a religious celebration, although there is a spiritual aspect to the music that everyone responds to. Our audience is wonderful in that respect. It’s an incredible representation of a lot of differences in the makeup of our community. To me, that’s just a really special thing.”

The Center for Old Music in the New World presents “A Handefull of Christmas Delights” at 8 p.m. tonight at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, 2025 Bellefonte Rd. Tickets are $5 (students), $8 (seniors) and $10 (public). Call (859) 269-2908.

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