‘Tis the season

…for lousy Christmas carol arrangements.

What is it about Christmas music that leads arrangers into the ugly back alleys of kitsch? Is it simply that it takes a genius to make a good arrangement of a good tune? Copland’s handling of the great Shaker hymn tune in his Appalachian Spring would suggest that. (Speaking of Shaker hymn tunes, we did a concert with the Canadian Brass last night which included a medley of Shaker tunes; I was surprised to find that one was called “The Happy Turkey.” Turns out that my better glasses deciphered that as “The Happy Journey”; more accurate but much less evocative.)

Perhaps it’s just that, in arranging as in performing, semplice is better. As the aeronautical engineers say, “the best thing that can be added to an airplane is some lighness.” The best thing that can be added to most Christmas carols is… nothing. This rule can be waived for geniuses, but there are precious few of them writing Christmas music arrangements.

Oddly, the very worst of the arrangements we’re doing on this year’s Christmas Pops concert were all from the Oxford University Press. It felt a little like going to the Bolshoi and finding oneself watching a burlesque show. Perhaps cash trumps image, but I would think they’d want to make sure they were on the right side of the art/kitsch divide.

About the author

Robert Levine
Robert Levine

Robert Levine has been the Principal Violist of the Milwaukee Symphony since September 1987. Before coming to Milwaukee Mr. Levine had been a member of the Orford String Quartet, Quartet-in-Residence at the University of Toronto, with whom he toured extensively throughout Canada, the United States, and South America. Prior to joining the Orford Quartet, Mr. Levine had served as Principal Violist of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra for six years. He has also performed with the San Francisco Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, and the Oklahoma City Symphony, as well as serving as guest principal with the orchestras of Indianapolis and Hong Kong.

He has performed as soloist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Oklahoma City Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, the Midsummer Mozart Festival (San Francisco), and numerous community orchestras in Northern California and Minnesota. He has also been featured on American Public Radio's nationally broadcast show "St. Paul Sunday Morning" on several occasions.

Mr. Levine has been an active chamber musician, having performed at the Festival Rolandseck in Germany, the Grand Teton Music Festival, the Palm Beach Festival, the "Strings in the Mountains" Festival in Colorado, and numerous concerts in the Twin Cities and Milwaukee. He has also been active in the field of new music, having commissioned and premiered works for viola and orchestra from Minnesota composers Janika Vandervelde and Libby Larsen.

Mr. Levine was chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians from 1996 to 2002 and currently serves as President of the Milwaukee Musicians Association, Local 8 of the American Federation of Musicians, and as a member of the Board of Directors of the League of American Orchestras. He has written extensively about issues concerning orchestra musicians for publications of ICSOM, the AFM, the Symphony Orchestra Institute, and the League of American Orchestras.

Mr. Levine attended Stanford University and the Institute for Advanced Musical Studies in Switzerland. His primary teachers were Aaron Sten and Pamela Goldsmith. He also studied with Paul Doctor, Walter Trampler, Bruno Giuranna, and David Abel.

He lives with his wife Emily and his son Sam in Glendale.

One Comment

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  • It’s true. So few great arrangements. But there are some….Jeff Tyzik for instance. Also, try to find a great (I mean GREAT) Hannukah arrangement.
    But, that said, audiences love holiday Pops, and holiday shows.
    This won’t be the last you perform Robert.

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