Fifty years ago on Christmas Eve, the astronauts of Apollo 8 — the first humans to leave Earth’s gravity — orbited the moon, photographing its dark side and witnessed the first view of an earthrise.
Broadcasting back to Houston, they offered a Christmas greeting to those on Earth, where one in four people were watching the televised event.
The Kansas City Chorale commemorates this moment of awe and achievement in “Christmas 1968,” a holiday program including works directly from the era, with a sense of festive nostalgia, as well as recent works that cast a critical eye on the technological triumphs and social ills of the time.
"It was Apollo 8, it was the assassination of Martin Luther King (Jr.), the Tet conflicts in Vietnam," notes the Chorale's artistic director, Charles Bruffy. "It was a very tumultuous time and here we are 50 years later, looking back, looking at our present, and then as we always do, looking at our future. And that's how we came to choosing this music."
Along with songs like “Christmas Time is Here,” “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” and “I Wanna Hippopatumus For Christmas,” the concert includes selections from Kile Smith’s 2014 “The Consolation of Apollo,” which uses the words of the Apollo 8 astronauts Frank Borman, James Lovell and William Anders as text.
Along with technical chatter, they read the first 10 verses from the biblical book of Genesis, which begins, "In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth."
Borman ended the broadcast with "Good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas and God bless all of you – all of you on the good Earth."
To represent this event, and the peril and beauty of space, Smith blends crystalline voices into spare, soaring harmonies, accompanied by bass drum and crotales. He drew inspiration for David Lang's Pulitzer Prize-winning “the little match girl passion.”
"It’s a very, specific and pictorial narration of the experience," Bruffy says of the piece. "You see in your mind’s eye what that must have been, to be sandwiched in that little caspule that’s flying around space and, with the reach of your arm almost, that you can almost dip down into the dirt of the moon.... And then that reality, that we have reached our mission. We have arrived at the moon, and it’s Christmas.”
The concert also includes “Manifesto,” a new work by Kansas City composer Jean Belmont Ford.
Belmont Ford is a longtime friend and collaborator with the ensemble, and in recent years she has started writing and setting her own text. In this work, that text references violence:
Rain down bullets from the sky.
Rain down litanies of loss.
The stolen lives. The ruined lands.
The endless cost.
The mindless, soulless disconnect.
From those in need.
The piece also demands fortitude, presenting a challenge to moral ambiguity, when Belmont Ford challenges listeners:
Be the one who saves the seeds of care,
The smallest from despair.
Be the one who knows what must be done.
Be the one knows,
We are one.
This work includes an inference to Christmas, Bruffy says, because of its "lullay, lully" refrain, a familiar feature of seasonal song since the 16th century’s "Coventry Carol." But its message applies universally, he says.
“Especially in today's world, (this one) is very compelling and stirring and, frankly, awakening," he says. "It really stirs the soul and, in a nutshell, brings reality right to our face: We went to the moon, and still we are needing to ask of ourselves to be the ones who know that all humanity is one."
Or, as the astronaut Anders, now 85 years old, put it in a recent interview for the Air and Space Museum’s 50th anniversary celebration: "As I looked down at the Earth, which was about the size of your fist at arm’s length, I'm thinking, you know, this is not a very big place. Why can’t we get along?"
The Kansas City Chorale performs "Christmas 1968," 7:30 p.m. Friday, December 14 at Rolling Hills Presbyterian Church (sold out); 2 p.m. on Sunday, December 16 at Unity Temple on the Plaza, and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, December 18 at 1900 Building.