Concert series is a beloved St. Louis Cathedral tradition

For many New Orleanians, the annual Christmas concerts in St. Louis Cathedral represent the most magical events of the season. Throughout December, 14 performances spanning the range of musical religious interpretations — from gospel to classical to jazz —will bring listeners the meaning of Christmas.

“It’s such a special venue and you know you’re in the presence of a lot of greatness,” said Debbie Davis, one of the New Orleans Nightingales performing on the first night, Sunday, Dec. 1.

Holiday audiences traditionally gather in the pews under the 150-year-old cathedral’s gilded frescos and resplendent chandeliers for holiday cheer.

“Sonically, it’s huge. It’s an all-encompassing room,” Davis said of the country’s oldest continually operating Catholic church.

Davis will share her 6 o’clock performance hour with other songstresses, Alexandra Scott, Jayna Morgan, Miss Sophie Lee, Holley Bendtsen, Lena Prima, Ingrid Lucia, Yvette Voelker, Margie Perez, Sarah Quintana, Vanessa Niemann, Kristin Diable, the Pfister Sisters and Aurora Nealand. The vocalists will sing solos, duets and trios, accompanied by Joshua Paxton on piano, Matt Perrine on bass and sousaphone and John Fohl on guitar.

Davis, who has sung there in previous seasons, described those experiences as both “disarming and gratifying.”

The next evening, Dec. 2, OperaCréole will perform selections from “The Messiah” as well as a vocal rosary dedicated to Mary, mother of the baby Jesus. OperaCréole’s singers are dedicated to performing lost or rarely performed works, particularly those handed down by free people of color and music originating in Africa, Spain and Haiti.

“It’s an honor to be in the Cathedral,” said founder and director Givonna Joseph, who grew up in New Orleans. Her mother and grandmother were multilingual and the ensemble sings lyrics written in other languages. Joseph will narrate during the performance, providing background about the Creole traditions.

“The voices will permeate the sanctuary,” said Brazella Briscoe, manager of the Zion Harmonizers. On Wednesday, Dec. 4, his choir will ring out “Go Tell It On the Mountain,” “People Get Ready,” and “Anybody Here Love Jesus,” among other gospel favorites.

Between 70 and 100 young musicians who study and play with The Roots of Music will entertain in the Cathedral for the first time on Monday, Dec. 9.

“From the staff to the students – they’re excited,” said Roots co-founder and Rebirth Brass Band snare drummer, Derrick Tabb.

The Marching Crusaders practice right next door in the Cabildo, so it feels like home, he said. “Not a lot of marching bands get to play in the Cathedral,” making the opportunity even more special for them.

“We’re going to play very soft,” he said. It is important for the kids to learn how to adjust to any venue.

Roots of Music will welcome a few special guests, including jazz trumpeter Kermit Ruffins, an ardent supporter of the youth group.

For clarinetist Evan Christopher, the concert offers a rare opportunity to perform original pieces with the Faubourg String Quartet under Dr. Jee Yeoun Ko. “I’m able to play something more sensitive” on Dec. 11 than in most other venues, Christopher said.

Davell Crawford, New Orleans’ “piano prince,” regularly visits the cathedral to light a candle before the shrine of Henriette DeLille, but is looking forward to performing there on Thursday, Dec. 12.

“It’s a big deal for me to come to the church and give honor to God because that is where my talent comes from,” Crawford said.

“Nothing to me is just a performance,” Crawford said. “It’s all spiritual.”