The Celtic folk band Ensemble Galilei has been performing music from the Renaissance, Ireland and Scotland for more than two decades. When the time comes every year for the six musicians to pick out a Christmas set, they have a lot of material from which to choose — without being too predictable.
"Honestly, after 22 years of Christmas concerts with Ensemble Galilei, we do everything," Carolyn Surrick, who plays viola da gamba with the group, tells NPR's Neal Conan. "We also ... have to honor the solstice."
Surrick plays alongside Hanneke Cassel on fiddle, Ryan McKasson on violin and viola, Kathryn Montoya on recorders and whistles, Jackie Moran on bodhran and banjo and Sue Richards on the Celtic Harp.
As part of a winter concert, they share a variety of music — a medley of classic Christmas carols and some traditional Celtic music from their album A Change of Worlds. Click the link on this page to hear the group's holiday performance.
NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. By this point, the soundtrack in the stores and the elevators can drive some people mad. One more "Jingle Bell Rock," one more "Holly, Jolly," and you're about to scream.
For much of this hour, we celebrate the season with Ensemble Galilei. We'll hear a lot of music and start in just a moment, but we want to hear from some of the other musicians in the audience today, whether you play jazz, rock or blues, whether you play early or Celtic music.
The holidays can be some of your busier weeks of the year. What song do you put on your set list that avoids the usual suspects? Tell us your tune, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Later in the program, science comes up with an answer to waiting time. Robert Krulwich will join us.
But first a winter's concert with Ensemble Galilei, and as promised, why don't we start with some music?
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE FIRST NOEL")
CONAN: Ensemble Galilei with us in Studio 4A. That's Carolyn Surrick on viola da gamba, Hanneke Cassel on fiddle, Ryan McKasson on violin and viola, Kathryn Montoyoa on recorders and whistles, Jackie Moran on bodhran and banjo, Sue Richards the harper. Nice to have you all back on TALK OF THE NATION after all this time.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMEN: Hey, thanks for having us.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Great to be here.
CONAN: So that first set, that's pretty traditional Christmas. So you confuse us all by spelling that first tune a little differently.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Oh yes, well, you should have seen the way I spelled it the first time.
CONAN: There's a W in there for some reason.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I don't know. I was feeling very Latin.
Aren't there supposed to be some dots above one of those vowels?
CONAN: Over the O I think, yes.
CONAN: So what do you do at Christmastime? There's a repertoire of stuff. Do you add it in? Do you vary it? What do you do?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Well, honestly after 22 years of Christmas concerts with Ensemble Galilei, we do everything.
CONAN: So no shame whatsoever.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: No, not really, and we also, you know, you have to honor the solstice, which is just tomorrow. So, you know, doing music, which is not necessarily "The First Noel" and "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," you know, we think that's pretty...
CONAN: I've not heard you do that one.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I think you missed that year.
CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. We want to hear from the other musicians in the audience. What do you add to your set around the holidays and trying to avoid the usual suspects? 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. And let's start with - this is - well, let's see how we do it on this computer, Marcy(ph), Marcy with us from - that's Houston?
MARCY: Yes, it is. Hi.
CONAN: Go ahead, please.
MARCY: Yes, well, I'm a musician here, and in fact I got to my gig early and I parked the car in a parking lot and heard your program and called in.
MARCY: So I'm on my way to a gig right now for about an hour. And being - well, I'm a blues musician, and my blues name is Sweet Mama Cotton. And being here in Houston, one of my favorite Christmas songs is Charles Brown "Please Come Home for Christmas." It's kind of normal but not too.
But then I was telling your screener I also do a song by a little girl named Rita Faye Wilson from the '50s called "Sleigh Bells, Reindeer and Snow" that I found on the John Waters compilation Christmas CD.
CONAN: The John Waters?
MARCY: Yes, the John Waters. He put together a Christmas CD, which a friend of mine sent me a couple years ago. And there are few songs on it that I would want to do in public, but this is a really sweet little song.
CONAN: Do you put on a pencil moustache for the performance?
MARCY: No, no, I haven't tried that yet, but, you know, I might try that sometime. It sounds like a great idea. I have done drag before, so, you know, it could happen again.
CONAN: And could you tell us where you're performing tonight?
MARCY: Well, I'm playing - just this afternoon I'm playing a little private party for just a group of elderly people. And I'm looking forward to it, and I think they'll enjoy it. They like - last time I was there, they asked me to play "Begin the Beguine." So I brought it with me this time.
CONAN: All right, you brought the charts.
MARCY: I did. I brought my chart with me, yeah.
CONAN: All right, Marcy, knock 'em dead.
MARCY: Hey, thanks so much for your show.
CONAN: Appreciate it, thanks for the call. We just have a couple of minutes before we go to the next - the first break. So how about a little bit more music?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Great.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CONAN: More from Ensemble Galilei. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Today Ensemble Galilei joins us in 4A for a special performance of holiday music. The band includes Carolyn Surrick, Hanneke Cassel, Ryan McKasson, Kathryn Montoya, Jackie Moran and Sue Richards. Their Celtic, Scottish, Swedish interpretations and their early music are a far cry from "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" and "All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth."
So today, we want to hear from musicians in our audience. What's the song you include in your holiday set that's a little unexpected? 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
This email from Brent: We're a rock band that tries to play covers of songs everyone knows, but nobody hears has covered. We play "Feliz Navidad" by Jose Feliciano as our Christmas song. He describes himself as a lead singer and driver of the Winnebago for Water Tower.
Let's see if we can get a caller in. This is - excuse me, this is Ben, and Ben's with us from - where in South Dakota?
BEN: Kadoka, South Dakota, right at the edge of the Badlands.
CONAN: Go ahead, please.
BEN: Thanks for having me on. I'm a high school and middle school band director out here, and I'm just on the back end of four concerts that we just got done performing for our district. And to keep things fresh, I try and arrange different not-as-popular carols for my band. This year, I did an arrangement of "We Saw Three Ships" and the "Carol of the Bells," and little things like that.
I teach a range from fifth grade to seniors in high school. So I have to inventive with my arranging.
CONAN: What is the difference for "I Saw Three Ships" between fifth grade and the high school band?
BEN: Lots of long notes.
CONAN: So - and do they all enjoy it equally well, though?
BEN: Yeah, they - I think they really appreciate the fact that I take the time to write the music for them. They think, you know, I write it just for them. I try and tell them that I didn't write the song, I just arranged it, but I think they get a kick out of getting something special. They see my name on it with arranger next to it, and they think that's pretty neat. And they try a little harder than just buying something from the music store and handing it out.
CONAN: Well, Ben, any more concerts left before the holiday?
BEN: No. My wife and I get to blissfully fly to her parents tomorrow morning with no more concerts. So it's been a nice stretch. And by the way, the ensemble that's playing are fantastic, and I'm glad you have them on today.
CONAN: Well, thanks very much, and they appreciate that, too.
BEN: All right. Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: Here's an email that we have from Jonathan in St. Louis: I did a Christmas gig a few weeks ago, and "This Christmas" by Donny Hathaway was on the set list. What a great tune, and fun to play. I'm a percussionist. This particular gig was a five-piece combo. So we did jazz and R&B versions of a lot of tunes. We played outdoors on a surprisingly beautiful day in the Central West End in St. Louis.
This from Sam: My brother and I have a duo act, and as our obligatory Christmas song, we did "River" by Joni Mitchell. To get some welcome relief from incessant sappiness, I would recommend "Christmas with the Family" by Robert Earl Keen. Let's see if we can get another caller in. And this is Rick, and Rick's with us from Santa Clara.
RICK: How are you doing?
CONAN: Good, thanks.
RICK: Well, I'm Rick Torres. I'm actually an Elvis tribute artist. I perform concerts and Elvis appearances all over the Bay Area. As a record, this month, I have 27 shows. So I do a lot of appearances. And it's funny, because people want me to do Elvis Christmas songs, but they come up with: Can you do some rock and roll Elvis songs?
Well, you know, Elvis didn't really do rock and roll Elvis songs. He did Christmas songs or gospel, you know, "Blue Christmas" and that kind of thing. So I had to kind of stretch outside the box and find some stuff that was a little unconventional, like George Thorogood "Rock-'n'-Roll Christmas" and "Run, Run, Rudolph" and stuff to kind of give them an option with that.
But the thing is these songs were not done by Elvis. So I actually had to kind of add a little Elvis spin to them...
CONAN: Elvis-ize them.
RICK: I Elvis-ized them. That's right. I'll put a little shake, rattle and roll in them, you know. But they're a lot of fun, and, you know, as the years have gone by, I'm perfected them up a little bit more. "Run, Run, Rudolph" is a lot of fun, and, you know, I can do a lot of shaking with that song.
RICK: But, you know, do a lot of that, you know...
(Singing) Hello, reindeer, you know you're the mastermind.
CONAN: Well, thanks for Elivis-izing our show. Appreciate it.
RICK: Thank you, bud. You guys have a merry Christmas.
CONAN: You, too. How about some more music, guys?
BAND MEMBER: Great.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CONAN: Ensemble Galilei here with us in Studio 4A on TALK OF THE NATION. You just heard "Brudmarsch," "Full Rigged Ship," "Cluck Old Hen," "What Wondrous Love Is This?" Let's get another caller in on the conversation, and let's go to - this is Jacqui, Jacqui on the line with us from San Francisco.
JACQUI: Hi. How are you doing?
CONAN: Hi, Jackie. Good. Thanks.
JACQUI: Good. Thanks for having me on.
CONAN: What tune do you put in your set for the holidays?
JACQUI: Yes. We actually mix - put out an album a few years ago called "Smashed for the Holidays." So when we do Christmas music, we mix hard rock tunes with jazz songs. So I'm a jazz musician, but we'll do things like "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" over "Sweet Home Alabama" or "Santa Claus" - "Santa Baby" over "D'yer Mak'er" from Led Zeppelin. So really trying to mix genres together.
CONAN: And these go over well.
JACQUI: They go over great. I mean I sort of made the holiday album on a whim a few years ago, and you know, just to be able to do something different to holiday music when we have those Christmas gigs, and it's really one of the best albums I have. It's very funny. So you never know. I guess people are always looking for something a little different, so...
CONAN: You working this week?
JACQUI: I did some holiday private parties and a couple of concerts, and now I'm off. So it'll be nice to have a few days just with family.
CONAN: Well, Jacqui, congratulations. Thanks very much.
JACQUI: Thank you.
CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is Mike, and Mike's on the line with us from Sioux Falls.
MIKE: Yeah, Neal. Love your show.
CONAN: Thank you.
MIKE: On the way to a gig in Yankton, South Dakota. We're a group called A South Dakota Acoustic Christmas. Been doing this for about 20 years, and of course we've done a lot of the songs that your guests have mentioned, and we've written quite a few of our own songs and rearranged a few - we got one that - we got a great fiddle player, and we do the "Orange Blossom Special," we would call it the Santa Special. And we'd put some kind of fun lyrics to it: Look yonder, coming out of the stratosphere, sure looks like Santa and his eight reindeer.
CONAN: Oh, well, good - important to get the rhyme expansion right too. Good luck. Good luck, Mike...
MIKE: Thank you.
CONAN: ...and drive carefully on the way to the gig.
MIKE: Will do. Thank you.
CONAN: All right. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And here's a couple of emails. This from Rick(ph): The band on today is awesome. I'm a hospital volunteer musician, play guitar for cancer patients. I try to play "Do You Hear What I Hear?" and "What Child Is This?" - quiet tunes like that. I'm listening to you right now on WPLN Nashville Public Radio.
This is from John Paul(ph) ): I'm a professional trumpet player. My brass quintet performs at the National Shrine in Royal Oak, Michigan. We perform lots of unusual music like Gabrieli and Renaissance carols. People seem to enjoy something different. Last night I played a soul Christmas concert, including selections from Cee Lo's great new Christmas CD.
As some listeners will know, I'd had the opportunity, the great pleasure of touring with Ensemble Galilei for a number of years. And we wanted to take the opportunity today to go out on one of the tunes that we performed in some of those shows. This is "Ithaka." Constantine Cavafy wrote this.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "ITHAKA")
CONAN: (Speaking) As you set out for Ithaka, hope your road is a long one, full of adventure, full of discovery. Laistrygonians, Cyclops, angry Poseidon - don't be afraid of them. You'll never find things like that on your way as long as you keep your thoughts raised high, as long as a rare excitement stirs your spirit and your body. Laistrygonians, Cyclops, wild Poseidon - you won't encounter them unless you bring them along inside your soul, unless your soul sets them up in front of you.
Hope your road is a long one. May there be many summer mornings when, with what pleasure, what joy, you enter harbors you're seeing for the first time; may you stop at Phoenician trading stations to buy fine things, mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony, sensual perfume of every kind - as many sensual perfumes as you can; and may you visit many Egyptian cities to learn and go on learning from their scholars.
Keep Ithaka always in your mind. Arriving there is what you're destined for. But don't hurry the journey at all. Better if it lasts for years so you're old by the time you reach the island, wealthy with all you've gained on the way, not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey. Without her you wouldn't have set out. She has nothing left to give you now. And if you find her poor, Ithaka won't have fooled you. Wise as you will have become, so full of experience. You will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.
Carolyn Surrick, Hanneke Cassel, Ryan McKasson, Kathryn Montoya, Jackie Moran, Sue Richards, Ensemble Galilei. Thank you all so much.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Thanks so much for having us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.