A New Look at Old Carols at the Met Museum

By Catherine Yang
Catherine Yang
Catherine Yang
December 11, 2016 Updated: December 11, 2016

Since 1942, Benjamin Britten’s three-part treble chorus work, “A Ceremony of Carols,” has been a holiday staple. The 11-movement children’s choir piece starts with a procession and leads into an upbeat, festive movement, then continues to vary with contrasting carols throughout. 

It’s a piece that the American Boychoir performs every year, said music director Fernando Malvar-Ruiz, but this time around he wanted to give audiences a new perspective.

At The Met Fifth Avenue’s Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium on Dec. 19, rather than performing the work from beginning to end, the choir will sing various complementary carols between each movement.

“Audiences can then understand new aspects of these pieces that they didn’t before, just by pairing them with other pieces,” Malvar-Ruiz said.

Malvar-Ruiz said the added carols will all complement the preceding movements in theme, text, or the music itself. For example, there is a carol called “In Freezing Winter Night,” and the choir will follow that with an arrangement of “Silent Night.”

Malvar-Ruiz says he hopes everyone in the audience can experience something new and positive, whether it be a feeling or discovering a particular piece they like.

American Boychoir

The performance is one of many annual traditions for American Boychoir, which features the choirs of the American Boychoir School.

The school was founded in Columbus, Ohio, in 1937 (and moved to New Jersey in 1950) by Herbert Huffman, who wanted an American institution that would follow the thousand-year-old boychoir school tradition—that is, to run a choir not for its own sake, but to build character and good citizenship in young people.

“Character building is why this school exists,” Malvar-Ruiz said.

Self-discipline, teamwork, dedication, and hard work are all principles the students learn and exercise as part of a professional touring choir, he added. A student requires all of these to be able to memorize and perform a piece like the cantata “Carmina Burana” with a professional ensemble like the Philadelphia Orchestra. Malvar-Ruiz was rehearsing the piece with the choir for a performance that will come shortly before they make their way to New York. 

The choir, full of students from 4th to 8th grade, has performed with orchestras like the New York Philharmonic and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and has been invited to sing for every U.S. president since John F. Kennedy. 

The choir has had a busy fall season, touring several cities in the Midwest before the annual holiday tour begins in the Northeast. They have bounced back after having to file for bankruptcy last year and have reorganized, restructured, and raised enough funds to continue as usual. The touring choir size has not been affected, and they will even perform overseas this year.

The choir has a long tradition that Malvar-Ruiz finds very moving. Every year, they host a home concert with alumni in the audience and sing a piece called “Christmas Tide.”

During the concert, he asks the alumni to join the choir on stage for the piece—and usually about 60 do.

“That first note, that always gets to me. It’s such a beautiful sound, so full of emotion that it always gets to me, and because of the significance. You’re looking at generations of choirsters, you’re seeing an 11-year-old singing with someone who is 60, and they both went through the same experience,” Malvar-Ruiz said. “It is always very, very moving, and the music itself is beautiful.”