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Great Northern Union Chorus

Christmas Stories (2015)

3.0

December 11, 2015

Tuning / Blend 3.7
Energy / Intensity 4.0
Innovation / Creativity 3.7
Soloists 3.3
Sound / Production 2.7
Repeat Listenability 3.0
Tracks
1 Songs Of Christmas 4.0
2 What Child Is This? 4.0
3 Yes, Virginia, There Is A Santa Claus (spoken story) 3.3
4 I Saw Three Ships 3.3
5 Do You Hear What I Hear? 3.7
6 The Christmas Truce (spoken story) 3.3
7 Silent Night 3.0
8 It's The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year 3.3
9 For The Man Who Hated Christmas (spoken story) 3.7
10 Coventry Carol 3.7
11 Welcome Christmas 3.0
12 Warm And Fuzzy 3.3
13 Gold Wrapping Paper (spoken story) 3.3
14 The Secret Of Christmas 3.3
15 Winter Wonderland 3.3
16 The Secret Of Christmas (reprise) 3.3

Recorded 2013 – 2014
Total time: 44:13, 16 songs


Tuning / Blend 3
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 5
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 2
Repeat Listenability 2
Tracks
1 Songs Of Christmas 3
2 What Child Is This? 4
3 Yes, Virginia, There Is A Santa Claus (spoken story) 3
4 I Saw Three Ships 3
5 Do You Hear What I Hear? 3
6 The Christmas Truce (spoken story) 3
7 Silent Night 3
8 It's The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year 4
9 For The Man Who Hated Christmas (spoken story) 3
10 Coventry Carol 4
11 Welcome Christmas 3
12 Warm And Fuzzy 3
13 Gold Wrapping Paper (spoken story) 3
14 The Secret Of Christmas 3
15 Winter Wonderland 3
16 The Secret Of Christmas (reprise) 3

Man, I wish I'd been at these Christmas shows! The Great Northern Union Chorus from blustery Minnesota absolutely nails its Best of 2013 and 2014 Christmas Concerts, recorded live and presented here as Christmas Stories. Marvel at the precision phrasing, dynamics, diction, committed emotion, proper breathing, and obvious clear direction for each song and for the ensemble at large. The men's hard work paid off — the audience members loved what they heard!

Unfortunately for those of us at home, while this is anything but an average choir, we've received an average recording to evaluate, a sort of souvenir-style disc that picks up everything in those performances, coughs and squeaks included, with the tenor section hitting the area microphones the hardest, and no way for us to see all of the wonderful staging and movement and facial expressions that the Great Northern Union Chorus is known for. From a seat in the hall, these concerts were probably a clear "5". From our physical CD that gets too muffled, that makes quiet moments too hard to hear cleanly, it's simply not at "5" on our rating scale. And we do understand: recording this many voices in the studio to clean up the sound is just not feasible. Live is the way to go.

Though this recording is certainly not without listener appreciation and respect. Having close to 150 members in your group, who must all pass performance qualifications and be committed to rehearsals, shows, and competitions, is ridiculously awesome and is a testament to this group's legacy. When these guys hit a double forte? HOLD ON TO YOUR HAT! It's impossible not to say "Wow!" when the chorus lets it fly open, and with such locked intonation on the loud chords you'd swear you were hearing overtones.

The arrangements are challenging and clever on Christmas Stories, and if they aren't all already for sale commercially, I hope they will be so others can join the fun. Inventive What Child Is This? is a personal favorite that creates goosebumps, and the powerful suspensions in festive It's The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year really puts one in the mood to clink cocoa mugs. Creating depth to the release as a whole are thoughtful narrations throughout that tell little-known Christmas tales for the rapt audiences. One even feels so personal that it could be a first-hand experience (we aren't given the origin of the stories). The leadership of this chorus is certainly giving its members a lot of fine material to learn and grow from.

I think nothing but the best of the Great Northern Union Chorus. If you're a supporter of the arts, buying Christmas Stories to play at your holiday party would be a fine way to support this ensemble.


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 4
Tracks
1 Songs Of Christmas 5
2 What Child Is This? 4
3 Yes, Virginia, There Is A Santa Claus (spoken story) 3
4 I Saw Three Ships 4
5 Do You Hear What I Hear? 4
6 The Christmas Truce (spoken story) 3
7 Silent Night 3
8 It's The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year 3
9 For The Man Who Hated Christmas (spoken story) 4
10 Coventry Carol 4
11 Welcome Christmas 3
12 Warm And Fuzzy 3
13 Gold Wrapping Paper (spoken story) 3
14 The Secret Of Christmas 4
15 Winter Wonderland 3
16 The Secret Of Christmas (reprise) 4

The Great Northern Union Chorus is a large barbershop group from Minnesota, and they have a big, booming sound. Christmas Stories is a live recording and sounds like it, with all the room echo that one would expect from a big group in a big room with area mics. That said, the group has nicely edited the recording: so many live albums are disrupted by thunderous applause between songs, and that is thankfully gone here (although certainly well-deserved). That actually adds to the listenability of Christmas Stories: one could easily get engrossed in these carols and stories without constantly being shocked by a loud audience reaction.

On the other hand, though, there are four spoken word stories (hence the album title) which are beautiful and touching (seriously, For the Man Who Hated Christmas might well bring a tear to your eye) but won't need to be part of your regular rotation through this album. The GNU also doesn't credit the authors or sources of these stories; For the Man Who Hated Christmas was from a 1982 issue of Women's Day; while Gold Wrapping Paper is likely a fable. The origin of these stories isn't crucial, but this listener did wonder whether these were first-person narratives prior to consulting Google.

The men of GNU do a wonderful job with these songs; they've mastered beautifully stretchy phrases thanks to their dynamics, and listeners can sense the power of being in the room during this concert. Songs Of Christmas is especially a highlight and a great way to start the album (and the concert) — it's a well-paced and well-arranged medley of holiday tunes, and it gives this large group a bit of its own personality. Winter Wonderland has a big personality as well, but I feel a bit isolated from the performance aspect with all the audience giggles and reactions to what must be some stunning choreography.

Many of these songs would be wonderful additions to a holiday playlist — especially the songs in the first third of the album. The booming live sound gets distracting on a few tracks (Warm And Fuzzy, for example), but beautiful, tender performances such as The Secret Of Christmas are worth sticking around for late in the album. Christmas Stories isn't an album that most people will listen to repeatedly from start to finish, but it showcases some lovely performances from this barbershop group, and those nuggets are worth hearing.


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 3
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 Songs Of Christmas 4
2 What Child Is This? 4
3 Yes, Virginia, There Is A Santa Claus (spoken story) 4
4 I Saw Three Ships 3
5 Do You Hear What I Hear? 4
6 The Christmas Truce (spoken story) 4
7 Silent Night 3
8 It's The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year 3
9 For The Man Who Hated Christmas (spoken story) 4
10 Coventry Carol 3
11 Welcome Christmas 3
12 Warm And Fuzzy 4
13 Gold Wrapping Paper (spoken story) 4
14 The Secret Of Christmas 3
15 Winter Wonderland 4
16 The Secret Of Christmas (reprise) 3

It's no secret that Christmas is my favorite time of year. I'm one of those weirdos that never gets tired of singing or listening to carols. So it was a real joy to receive Christmas Stories by the Great Northern Union Chorus. As chorus albums tend to be, Christmas Stories was recorded live and has a slightly distant quality. But, the theme of peace and love that prevails makes the album seem more ethereal than from any lack of production value.

What makes this release special is the fact that, as the title implies, heart-warming Christmas stories are peppered throughout. If your heart-strings are prone to tugging, you may want to keep a box of tissues nearby for a few of these.

Musically, Christmas Stories is right on par. Barbershop sensibilities make the blend tight and the arrangements interesting. Songs Of Christmas is a fun medley that kicks things off on a high note. The ensemble also does justice to my favorite arrangement of What Child Is This? As for the sound here, the balance is a little mid-range heavy. The high tenors tend to be the quietest. When they come forward in the mix though, it rings. There are pockets of muddiness in Do You Hear What I Hear?, but it is actually my favorite track. Welcome Christmas from The Grinch makes me smile, as does Warm And Fuzzy. It's nice to hear slightly less traditional songs making their way into the mainstream culture.

The Secret Of Christmas is a beautiful song that's completely new to me. I don't know if GNU was getting tired at this point or what, but there isn't the same intensity as earlier in the album, and this gorgeous song suffers from this lacking, as does the blend. The group makes up for it with Winter Wonderland, though. If you want a single track to make you feel fantastic, this is the one.

Christmas Stories by the Great Northern Union Chorus is by no means the greatest holiday album out there. On every scale there is, they are nice and solid. Every scale except one: heart. Christmas Stories is touching and will leave you with a warm and fuzzy feeling. That, my friends, is priceless. Happy holidays to you all!


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