Te Deum Chamber Choir and poet Natasha Ria El-Scari reinterpret tradition with “Lessons and Carols for Today” 

Te Deum Chamber Choir performing at Village Presbyterian Church for “Lessons and Carols for Today.” Photo by Brian Rice.

In “Lessons and Carols for Today,” Te Deum Chamber Choir and poet Natasha Ria El-Scari deftly balanced the comfort of traditional Christmas with 21st century concepts. Based on the traditional Anglican Nine Lessons and Carols service, the collaboration explored both the joy the holiday inspires and the fears and terrors from 2000 years ago, still relevant today. 

They performed a sold out concert at St. Mary Episcopal Church in Kansas City, Missouri on Monday and to a packed sanctuary at Village Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village, Kansas on Tuesday. 

Matthew Christopher Shepard, Te Deum’s founder and artistic director, directed the choir. Though the ensemble is entirely volunteer, it has become one of Kansas City’s top tier chorales. 

The hour-long concert flowed from music to lessons, making it much more worshipful and contemplative than if the performance had been broken with applause.

El-Scari prepared eight lessons, as author and spoken word artist. She reinterpreted the lessons through her own lens as an non-Christian feminist African American woman, bringing elements of her spirituality, history, humor, fears and triumphs into the text she shared from the podium, injecting humanity and personality into these age old lessons. 

Poet Natasha Ria El-Scari during “Lessons and Carols for Today” with Te Deum Chamber Choir. Photo by Brian Rice.

The concert began with a sternum-shaking chord from the organ, performed by Grammy-nominated organist Jan Kraybill, to open John Tavener’s “God Is With Us.” The piece featured baritone Josh Markley and the choir’s excellent dynamic contrasts from delicate to robust, Kraybill with judicious accompaniment, the work rousing with the final “Christ is born!” 

El-Scari’s first lesson was “Woman.” (In the published version of the lessons, El-Scari pairs the original Biblical reading with her own text, but in performance she gave only her words.) The traditional first lesson, from Genesis, relates the descent of Man, with Eve and the serpent to blame, but El-Scari interprets the lesson as reclamation of Eve’s value with the refrain “Blessed is the woman.” 

Arvo Pärt’s “Magnificat” followed, the shifting chords displaying both space and constraint. 

Music, spoken word, music, spoken word. With each lesson, Kraybill improvised under El-Scari’s words, supporting the delivery. El-Scari was measured and warm, inviting and insightful. “Reward” examined themes of submission and obedience and contingent promise, a reflection on the story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, Isaac. 

Here, Shepard paired the traditional hymn “O Come All Ye Faithful,” inviting the audience to sing with the choir (the melody and text was printed in the program). The hundreds-strong ensemble reenforced the “joyful and triumphant” nature of the song, with the choir adding harmonies. 

Lesson 3: “Womb Weary Miracle.” This work seemed heartbreakingly personal, a mother’s journey, raw and messy and sorrowful, tremendous loss and trembling joy woven together, followed by the Baroque ornamentation of George Fredric Händel’s “For unto us a child is born,” from the oratorio “Messiah,” the choir displaying their stylistic versatility.

El-Scari’s “Imagine” displayed her incisive humor and broad range of inspiration, describing a world of endless possibility and perpetual hope, including the magnificent line “the only option to conflict is always peace.” 

A gentle audience-participation “Away in the Manger” linked “Imagine” and “Quantum Leadership.” This three part work was part conversation, part ode to a toddler’s quirks and convictions, part celebration of the wonders of a loved person, followed by a lovely arrangement of “What Child Is This” by Matthew Colloton.

Lesson six, “Give My Only Son?,” compares the Biblical text of the birth of Jesus—presented so simply: “the time came to deliver her child”—with the sorrow and sacrifice of the Black mothers whose children have been unjustly murdered. Shepard paired B.E. Boykin’s arrangement of “Coventry Carol” with the work, the gentle melody building tension into the verse concerning Herod and the slaying of the innocent. The song featured alto Cassandra Leon as soloist. 

The next section focused on the awe of the Biblical events, the fear felt by the appearance of angels and the reassurance given by these messengers. El-Scari’s seventh lesson, “Fear,” was motivating, challenging, and encouraging, with the mantra “Action dilutes fear – DO IT ANYWAY!” repeated with increasing verve and getting a smattering of applause from the audience in response. Christopher H. Harris’ “Bring me all your dreams,” based on the poem by Langston Hughes was a lovely and arcing, a comforting piece just beautifully performed. 

The audience joined in for Norman Luboff’s arrangement of “Still, Still, Still,” which also included Kraybill on organ and chorus members on violin and piano. Though it’s heartwarming to hear so many people joined in song, in this piece the choir lingered on the last chord as the audience faded out and the sanctuary lights gently turned low, emphasizing the stillness of the song.

The concert’s final grouping featured El-Scari’s eighth lesson, “Diamond Life,” a reinterpretation of John 1: 1-14, which includes “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overtake it.” El-Scari offered an exuberant, creative lesson, a calling together, encouraging and accepting. “RISE,” she proclaimed, “Today is a brand new day!” 

“Rise” was also in the refrain of “The Savior’s Birth,” arranged by Marques L.A. Garrett. The spiritual-influenced work continued the vigor El-Scari had established, the shedding of the past and going boldly into the future. 

This energy helped lift the audience out of their seats for the final sing-along, segueing seamlessly into “Joy to the World.” It was this joy that completed the journey Te Deum and El-Scari had traversed, from themes of shame and fear and uncertainty, to renewal and hope, a sense that goodness is achievable and lasting. 

Reviewed Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2023. Te Deum Chamber Choir presented “Lesson and Carols for Today” at Village Presbyterian Church. www.te-deum.org and www.natasharia.com.

Libby Hanssen

Originally from Indiana, Libby Hanssen covers the performing arts in Kansas City. She is the author of States of Swing: The History of the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, 2003-2023. Along with degrees in trombone performance, Libby was a Fellow for the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at Columbia University. She maintains the culture bog "Proust Eats a Sandwich."

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