Hark! the herald angels sang throughout my childhood in Phoenix, whenever The Glorious Sound of Christmas played on my parents' hi-fi. Fourteen songs performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Temple University Concert Choir. Forty-five minutes of satin sound, from a treasure box that opened with trumpet fanfare and closed with the hushed choir singing a solemn "Silent Night, Holy Night."
This album of familiar carols and rarely recorded sacred songs was my favorite, if an unlikely soundtrack to our 1970s Southwestern celebrations. For us, Christmas was sunshine and sombreroed Santas, saguaro cacti wrapped in white lights and paper bag luminarias lining our street, enchiladas on Christmas Eve — and this glorious music with its polished, seamless Philadelphia sound.
I'd lie on the shag carpet near our fake fir (real trees were fire hazards in the dry climate) listening to Beethoven's "The Worship of God" or Schubert's "Ave Maria," and forget to tally my presents or fight my brothers for the last Mexican wedding cake. I loved the whole record, but these pieces in particular transported me to a different, distant landscape I'd never actually seen: sparkling snow, stone spire against a dark sky, warm candlelight reflected in stained-glass windows. My family didn't go to church. To me, that music — grand and powerful, filling the room, making me feel full — was church.
Going gold at its debut in 1962, The Glorious Sound of Christmas sold more than a million copies that season; it was "one of the fastest-selling classical sets in history," according to the Record Industry Association of America. By then, conductor Eugene Ormandy and his orchestra were already famous far beyond Philly, thanks to radio broadcasts, numerous recordings, and a concert on CBS — the first televised symphonic orchestra performance. This may explain how their new Christmas album made its way into so many households like mine, where the classical music we recognized came from Disney's Fantasia, Warner Brothers cartoons, and my mother's piano.
The year I was born, the orchestra's widely beloved record joined a cacophonous canon of holiday music of the era, including Christmas with the Chipmunks, Bing Crosby's I Wish You a Merry Christmas, and Vince Guaraldi's A Charlie Brown Christmas. And there it stayed, played on various devices (for LP, cassette, mp3, compact disc) for more than 50 years as the album was reborn and remixed, getting scratched and warped and, eventually, replaced when technology advanced or the recording wore out.
But traditions, like canons, change.
The first time I took my young daughters to the orchestra's annual holiday concert at the new Kimmel Center, they couldn't understand why I was so moved. They were too young to sense the overlay of present on past experience, or to know how the child self folds into the adult. They were listening to pretty music, while I marveled that the Christmas that music conjured when I was a kid is now the version I live.
This year, my husband and I choose concert tickets in the third tier, third row, center. Empty nesters, we don't need to see the stage, though it's beautifully decorated with trees and wreaths and red and green lights. We sit where, in that cello-shaped hall, the music sounds best. Over the years, we've heard the orchestra and the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia under several conductors. Tonight's, Bramwell Tovey, is less guest than host, inviting the audience into a light, festive program that harks back to the old album with just two of its songs: "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" and "O Come, All Ye Faithful."
People love it. Around us, the audience — in jeans and party dresses, athletic shoes and polished loafers with argyle socks — laugh at Tovey's music jokes and, with his encouragement, clap along to "Sleigh Ride." He pays tribute to Ormandy and his orchestra's gold standard of Christmas albums, but this is really Tovey's show: a program of his jazzy arrangements and a "Rittenhouse Carol" he composed. And he's truly wonderful — especially as he recites "A Visit from St. Nicholas" while playing piano for a medley bookended by "Santa Claus is Coming to Town."
"This is the most fun orchestra in America!" he exclaims, promoting the musicians as Ormandy did on the radio during my parents' childhoods. "And they're here every week!"
People come to a holiday concert with a different set of ears, Tovey has said, and the trick to pleasing an audience is playing the music people know. That's why I'm overcome every time I put on The Glorious Sound of Christmas and that first trumpet sounds. I have memorized Arthur Harris' arrangements — every bell, every trumpet, every soaring violin. That album, for me, is an artifact of a particular place and time that I can't return to, except through music.
To be embraced by my husband's family was to be absorbed into their traditions, and gradually, unintentionally, to give up most of mine. For years, we traveled between Arizona and Maryland, warm weather and cold, the rowdy excess of my family and the polite restraint of his. Now it seems we've settled here, setting the table with his grandmother's china, serving hard sauce for plum pudding in my mother-in-law's red enamel dish, attending a candlelight service and singing carols. It's quite like the picture I imagined once, but all I can think of is home.