‘Turning the world upside down with the concept of peace’

Te Deum performing a Mozart Requiem concert in September 2022 at Grace & Holy Trinity Cathedral (photo by Brian Rice Creative)

Te Deum presents “Lessons and Carols for Today with poet Natasha Ria El-Scari

Nine Lessons and Carols are an Anglican tradition dating from the late 1800s. During a special Evensong service on or around Christmas Eve, words from the gospel are interspersed with traditional carols and anthems.

Te Deum Kansas City, one of Kansas City’s premier choral ensembles, is presenting its first Lessons and Carols service this season, but not quite in the traditional sense. Te Deum founder Matthew Christopher Shepard wanted to update the lessons — which involve the fall of man, the prophecy of the Messiah and the birth of Jesus Christ, among other scriptures — to a contemporary voice for today’s audience.

“My goal wasn’t to update the language so it sounded like the 21st century. It was to completely shift the lens,” said Shepard.

“There will always be a place for the traditional Lessons and Carols, but…I wanted to hear those Lessons interpreted through a voice that doesn’t normally get promoted,” he said.

Natasha Ria El-Scari (photo by Shenya Vanoy)

Shepard sought out Natasha Ria El-Scari, a Black feminist poet and educator, to reinterpret these lessons. Though she attended Methodist and Presbyterian churches growing up and comes from a background of strong female Christian leaders, she has explored many religions.

“I am a person who truly believes that all paths are sacred,” said El-Scari, who runs an art gallery at the Center for Spiritual Living. “I am very interested in interfaith conversations and how people access their faith, how they use their faith in their lives, regardless of their tradition.”

For this performance, she reinterpreted and humanized the story of Eve, the story of Mary, the Magi and the shepherds. Some of the works are in conversation with God, some in conversation with a child.

“I love the challenge of honoring something that is traditional and sacred, but also pushing, pushing up against some of those things that may need to be confronted on a contemporary level,” said El-Scari.

El-Scari often collaborates with musicians. Organist Jan Kraybill will accompany El-Scari as she shares the new Lessons in spoken word poetry.

Inspired by her poetry, Shepard selected the choral music. Some of the program is traditional anthems and carols, with the audience invited to sing along, some from the “Holy minimalists” Arvo Pärt and John Tavener, and some from contemporary Black composers Marques L.A. Garret and B.E. Boykin.

“Her new lessons are so powerful that I needed to pick music that matched their intensity and profundity . . . the carols and the songs that we pair with it take on new meaning because they’re in concert with these new lessons,” said Shepard.

To allow audience members to revisit the text, a chapbook of the poems will be available for purchase at the concert.

“Ultimately, you know, these poems are not for me,” said El-Scari. “These poems are from me, but they are to touch an audience in a way that ignites them, to make them think about their lives and what they are bringing to the planet, and how to tie those lessons to that.”

A common theme during the winter holidays is one of peace, and El-Scari’s message highlights that hope.

“I really enjoyed the idea,” she said, “of turning the world upside down with the concept of peace.”

Te Deum Kansas City presents “Lessons and Carols for Today” at 7 p.m. Dec. 18 at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church and 7 p.m. Dec. 19 at Village Presbyterian Church. For more information visit www.te-deum.org.

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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