- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 22, 2001

Holiday music offers a chance to give a fresh spin to classics, revisit childhood favorites or create a fresh sense of wonder with new works for accomplished musicians of any genre.
Through the years, a wide spectrum of local artists have offered their own takes on the holidays, from soprano Denyce Graves' "Cathedral Christmas," performed with the Cathedral Choral Society and the Duke Ellington School of the Arts' Show Choir, to the Celtic-influenced, intimate stylings of hammered-dulcimer player Maggie Sansone.
If you are ready to run down to your local record store looking for the latest holiday offerings from Washington-area artists, though, you may be in for a surprise.
"People aren't buying holiday music the way they used to," says Lucas Hayes, a manager at Olsson's in Bethesda, a book and music store that is known for promoting the works of local musicians. "They're the kind of thing you don't listen to all year, and it's easier and cheaper just to download the song you like on an MP3 or from the Internet."
Even the Smithsonian Institution, once known for its collection of esoteric holiday CDs from many genres, has confined its offerings to just a few solid standards.
Fortunately, a few hardy souls are continuing to work in the holiday-music tradition. This year's "A Holiday Sampler," from Robin Bullock, Al Petteway and Amy White, ranks among the very best holiday music albums of any year. It offers sparkling acoustic treatments of traditional carols, along with a couple of original compositions by the musicians.
"I'm drawn to the older carols, things like the 'Coventry Carol' or 'Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming,'" says Miss White. "There's a certain sensibility about those older carols that really resonates with us."
Together, Miss White and Mr. Petteway, a fixture on the Washington acoustic music scene whom she married in 1995, have produced two award-winning albums and served as artists in residence at the Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage.
In live performance, the two are as much known for their stories as their songs. Mr. Petteway, the recipient of more than three dozen Washington Area Music Association Awards, often draws upon his experiences playing with various musicians, from Mike Auldridge to Mary Chapin Carpenter.
"I got a lot more into the holidays as an adult than I did as a kid," Mr. Petteway says. "I remember we all used to get together [Miss Chapin Carpenter and others] and go through our Alexandria neighborhood caroling. People had no idea who was singing in their back yards."
Miss White grew up in a musical household. Her mother was a soprano and gave voice lessons, and her father was principal English horn soloist of the National Symphony Orchestra.
She credits her parents with instilling in her a love for the less well-known carols, many of which appear on the album. In fact, her mother, Jane White, supplied the music for many of them.
Carols such as these, originally sung by cloistered monks or neighborhood choristers out a wassailing, seemingly cut across the ages, especially when played with the range of instruments used by Mr. Petteway and Miss White. Along with familiar instruments such as the guitar and mandolin, the two make use of bouzoukis, shakers, a bodhran and cowbells.
Mr. Petteway and Miss White found themselves digging deeply into the history of Christmas celebrations, exploring the old carols and studying long-forgotten traditions to prepare for their holiday offering.
"It's really been fascinating," Mr. Petteway says. "We've been studying Christmas and the holiday season like a course. We've been so inspired by all the different traditions."
The result is a multilayered but introspective approach to music similar to the sensibility that has served them well on their last two albums, "Racing Hearts" and "Gratitude."
"We work with a wide range of music but stay with a more acoustic accent," Mr. Petteway says.
Recently, three tracks from Mr. Petteway's 1994 album, "Waters and the Wild," were selected by filmmaker Ken Burns for his documentary about Mark Twain, which is scheduled to air next spring.
One of Miss White's compositions, "St. Clair's First Snow" is featured on the holiday album, as is another she co-wrote with her husband, "Branches." Although contemporary works, the two pieces are clearly in keeping with the tone and mood of the album's traditional pieces.
Most of the tracks on the holiday album receive instrumental treatments, but one highlight is clearly Miss White's rendition of Franz Schubert's "Ave Maria." Her soaring, otherworldly soprano, accompanied by Mr. Petteway's guitar, offers a refreshing change from the overwrought and overproduced versions of this much loved melody.
The two are joined on the album by Mr. Bullock, another multi-instrumentalist who has been associated with the folk trio Helicon, which he joined in 1986. He often has performed in group shows under auspices of Maggie's Music and is a longtime friend of the couple's.
"We've been enjoying each other's music for a long time," Miss White says. "He does a beautiful rendition of a part of Bach's 'Christmas Oratorio,' using mandolins and bouzoukis."
The three actually never perform on the album together.
"We found that we both wanted to do a holiday music CD, but neither one of us had enough music," Miss White explains. "Robin had six, and Al and I had six, and we decided to put them together."
Surprisingly, the mix works quite well, with similarities in tone and style that lend themselves to a more introspective holiday.
"A Holiday Sampler" is reminiscent of holiday albums from Miss Sansone, whose Maggie's Music label has produced a number of holiday winners in recent years, including "Ancient Noels," "A Scottish Christmas," "Sounds of the Season" and "Sounds of the Season II." Although the Annapolis-based label did not issue a new holiday album this year, it offers the video and DVD version of its very popular Scottish Christmas album, which features fiddler Bonnie Rideout and Mr. Petteway. (Miss Rideout is scheduled to perform in the program "A Scottish Christmas" at 8:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, with Celtic singer Jean Redpath, the Washington Pipe Band and the City of Washington Drum Corps.)
Another holiday music tradition for the Washington area has been the annual compilation CDs produced by Jeff Campbell for Hungry for Music. This year marks the sixth in a series that features a cross section of Washington talent, from the Hula Monsters to the Kennedys. You also will find a version of "White Christmas" on "A Holiday Feast, Vol. VI," although it is probably not the one you remember.
"It's a real diverse mix," says Mr. Campbell, who founded Hungry for Music in 1994 to provide musical experiences for children, senior citizens and the disadvantaged, making both instruments and musical performances by professional groups available to groups that otherwise might not have the opportunity.
"I realized the healing quality in the music that was in my life," Mr. Campbell says. "I wanted to pass it on."
It's a quality that is recognized by the artists who each year have flocked to do the CD.
"It's been wonderful," says Chris Hunter of the a cappella group Reverb. "I like the concept of what he's doing. Bringing music to people is a good thing."
In addition to contemporary takes on familiar Christmas music, like Reverb's "Joy to the World," Hungry for Music also features some offbeat numbers by familiar voices, such as Hazel Dickens' high lonesome version of "Blue Christmas," performed in duet with Seldom Scene singer Dudley Connell.
Original songs include Steve Key's "On Christmas I Got Nothing," an ironic take on what it means to be Jewish during the Christmas season.
The Hungry for Music CD and Mr. Petteway, Miss White and Mr. Bullock's "Holiday Sampler" are available from the Web sites hungryformusic.com and alandamy.com respectively, although the "Holiday Sampler" is on the verge of selling out.
The House of Musical Traditions in Takoma Park also had a few available. The current Hungry for Music CD, along with many of the older volumes, is available at Olsson's.

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