For New Classical Christmas Albums, Less is More

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It’s that time of year again, when orchestras across the land are dusting off their holiday pops programs and choruses are warming up for Messiahs and sing-a-along carol extravaganzas.

But for the recording industry, Christmas music has changed. The big orchestral albums of the sort that conductors like Arthur Fiedler or Eugene Ormandy used to make have fallen by the wayside. So have the grand star vehicles, with a sequined opera diva belting out Christmas songs backed up by a choir and orchestra.

But as we hear in this edition of Conducting Business, what remains are plenty of smaller-scale recordings that either attempt to make a cozier or refined spiritual statement (as with many early-music groups), or round up a bunch of stars from different genres to perform the standards.

The changes are partly driven by economics, said Anastasia Tscioulcas, who covers classical music for NPR Music. “Where did the recordings go? They’re very expensive to make,” she told host Naomi Lewin. “The big star-studded album with the full symphony orchestra behind them and maybe chorus thrown in for good measure is extremely expensive to produce.”

The new realities are a reflection of changes in the classical music business. “The number of stars that have that sort of appeal has descended dramatically,” noted Anne Midgette, classical music critic of the Washington Post. “Renee Fleming and Anna Netrebko are the only opera singers who have that sort of mass appeal.”

Of course, Christmas is not a time for snobbery or strict adherence to high-minded artistic ideals, say the panelists. Nostalgia is a big part of what drives the business. Listeners are often attracted to a holiday album by their favorite star, which sticks with them later in life.

Steven Epstein, a multi-Grammy Award-winning record producer, says a simpler aesthetic has come to dominate. “The most successful Christmas albums are those where the arrangements are not complex and that the melodies don’t get lost,” he said.

Epstein’s imprint can be found on several albums that follow an increasingly popular template: gather together stars from different genres and try and capture some of their respective fan bases. The most recent recording of this sort is “Musical Gifts from Joshua Bell and Friends,” which was released last month, but Epstein cites a similar effort from back in 1989: "Crescent City Christmas," for which Wynton Marsalis was joined by singers like Jon Hendricks and Kathleen Battle. “That is what really brings in the consumer are the additional guest artists,” Epstein noted.

Midgette sees no loss in the decline of the diva Christmas record. “Artistically these things are negligible – and I say that as somebody who has my favorite Christmas albums, which have been basically the same since I was about seven."

Listen to the full podcast above and tell us below: What are your most and least favorite holiday albums?

Sidebar: A Few of our favorite Christmas Recordings

Anne Midgette:
Christmas from a Golden Age (Naxos) (singers including Victoria de los Angeles, John McCormack, Rosa Ponselle and others)
The Messiah Remix (Cantaloupe) (featuring remixed versions by Paul Lansky, Eve Beglarian, Phil Kline and others)

Anastasia Tsioulcas:
Vince Guaraldi: "A Charlie Brown Christmas"
Robert Shaw Chorale: "The Many Moods of Christmas"

Steven Epstein:
Christmas with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir

Naomi Lewin:
Britten's Ceremony of Carols (Philadelphia Singers, Benita Valente, Maureen Forrester, David Gordon)
...And an honorable mention for worst Christmas collaboration: Michael Bolton and Placido Domingo sing "Ave Maria" from "Merry Christmas from Vienna"