If you want Christmas that sounds like Kentucky, a new video from the Berea College Bluegrass Ensemble is pretty hard to beat.
In this “Carol of the Bells,” the round starts with mandolin, quickly answered by fiddle, banjo and finally guitar, all propelled by deep, acoustic bass. The blazing two-and-a-half minute performance by the cross-generational group is captured in the diffused sunlight of late fall woods and the sanctuary of an old church.
The arrangement is by Al White, the ensemble’s director, who was trying to get something together a few years ago for the Berea College music department’s annual Christmas concert.
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“It’s the biggest gig of the year around here, and I always go all out arranging and rehearsing with my students for this,” White wrote, answering some email questions about the video. “I first worked this song up with the Berea College Bluegrass Ensemble for the 2008 Christmas Program (I was, at that time, playing banjo in the group). I brought the arrangement back for the 2015 Christmas Program because I felt like I had all the right personnel in the Bluegrass Ensemble to do this arrangement justice. Our friend Terry Vaught videoed us from his seat in the balcony at Union Church, put it up on Facebook and it fairly quickly received 15,000 viewings.”
One of the people watching was Richmond filmmaker Josiah Stendel, who offered to shoot the video for free. The ensemble recorded the song at Lexington’s Oakwood Recording Studios and then filmed with Stendel, founder of Lexington’s Menlo Lights media, in Jacobson Park and Berea College’s Danforth Chapel. In less than a week online, the video is nearing 30,000 views.
This is a glimpse into music making at Berea, and TV viewers across the country will see much more when CBS affiliates carry “Listen! A Musical Celebration of Christmas at Berea College” at 11:35 p.m. Christmas Eve. The performance, shot live at Berea’s Phelps Stokes Chapel Dec. 2 and 3, features Berea’s Black Music Ensemble, Concert Choir, Wind Ensemble, Jazz Ensemble, Women's Chorus and of course the Bluegrass Music Ensemble. On Lexington’s WKYT, it will be immediately followed by Alltech’s Celebration of Song, allowing viewers welcoming Christmas day to celebrate with lots of local collegiate music.