Christmas and classical concerts go together like sleighs and reindeer. Whether it be the deific grandiosity of Handel’s Messiah or the flamboyant whimsy of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, there is a vast array of beloved favorites to call upon when the hibernal solstice rolls around. With so much well-worn and time-honored material to choose from, it would be understandable for Atlanta’s classical music concerts to play a safe game and stick to audience favorites, well away from the realms of the avant-garde and experimental.
But last Friday night at the First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta, the “Harp for the Holidays” program demonstrated why holiday concerts don’t have to be predictable and safe. The daring but always captivating harp trio performance by Challenge the Stats, the church’s artists-in-residence, broke bold new ground by promoting ethnic diversity in classical music. The concert managed to stand in two circles — the warm and inviting realms of seasonal familiarity as well as the bold and fascinating world of ethnomusicology.
Atlanta harpist and Challenge the Stats founder Angelica Hairston opened the event with a solo performance of “Navajo Vocable no. 4,” the work of Navajo pianist and composer Connor Chee. While his work undoubtedly falls under the contemporary genre umbrellas of “new age” and “world music,” Chee’s compositional style is rooted in the Native American musical traditions of his ancestry.
There is a contemplative, hypnotic aspect to his work that translates nicely to the pulsating nature of the harp. Hairston captured that quality well in her performance, which created a delicate, intimate tone for the evening as a whole. Hairston performed this piece and several other Connor Chee compositions on his 2021 album The Navajo Piano (Revisited), a clear commendation from the composer himself.
Hairston was soon joined by Robbin Gordon-Cartier, president of the North Jersey Chapter of the American Harp Society, and Dr. Mallory McHenry, lecturer in harp at the Butler School of Music at the University of Texas at Austin. The trio was a down-to-earth and relatable combo, with each member bringing a commanding presence and cheerful aura to what was otherwise an exploration of meditative, insular music.
The trio performed another work by Chee, the world premiere performance of “Pathways for Three Harps.” Chee balances the tonal possibilities of the harp well with earnest pentatonic melody developing in the middle register, cycles of arpeggios along the top and a solemn, gentle bass accompaniment. The result was a work that expanded upon the potential hinted at in the preceding solo work to great effect.
While the fascinating and innovative work of Chee could have easily occupied the entire set, the trio shifted gears into more seasonally appropriate territory with “Winter Holiday for Three Harps” by African American mid-century classical composer Betty Jackson King. The work caters to what might be considered “traditional” harp music: cascading arpeggios and glittering, angelic counterpoint. It served as a fine transitional piece into the seasonal favorites, and an opportunity for Hairston and company to showcase a level of chemistry and interplay that belied their limited rehearsal time.
The evening proceeded with original spins on seasonal favorites — “We Three Kings” was full of melodic embellishments and chordal experimentation that turned the old chestnut into a journey through captivating realms of harmonic modernism. “Silent Night” was arranged by Brandee Younger and carried a jazz harmonic palette complete with the seventh chords, extended voicings and a sense of gentle swing that gave new life to one of the holiday season’s most enduring classics.
The only down moment came with the inevitable audience sing-along segment. It seems that no Christmas classical concert is complete without a moribund drone from the ill-prepared crowd. There is a reason the word “audience” is derived from the Latin meaning “to listen” and that reason is always reinforced when the divine aura of a Christmas concert is reduced to amateur caroling.
For all its cheerful warmth, there was an educational aspect to the evening that bears comment, especially for how well it was handled. The harp is a poignant symbol of the larger goal of Challenge the Stats: Just as the classical world has a notably small number of Black and Hispanic participants, the harp is often sidelined as well in the larger orchestra.
Hairston, Gordon-Cartier and McHenry shared stories about their experiences as Black women in the highly Anglicized world of classical music. One of the anecdotes was particularly penetrating: Gordon-Cartier, the elder of the trio, spoke of her experiences as a young girl at harp recitals. She finished playing her piece at a concert, only to see the White mother of the subsequent performer come wipe down the instrument before allowing the concert to continue.
Their stories were a gentle but unwavering reminder that healing racial divisions in our country serves an even greater and oft-overlooked good: the potential for new ideas and well-established traditions to work together in the creation of incredible music.
Challenge the Stats will continue its residency at First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta January 16 with Trials to Triumph: MLK Celebration featuring bassoonist Andrew Brady.
Jordan Owen began writing about music professionally at the age of 16 in Oxford, Mississippi. A 2006 graduate of the Berklee College of Music, he is a professional guitarist, bandleader and composer. He is currently the lead guitarist for the jazz group Other Strangers, the power metal band Axis of Empires and the melodic death/thrash metal band Century Spawn.