A Tale of Tikka Masala

What do chicken tikka masala and the “Christmas Concerto” have in common?

Newburyport Festival Baroque Orchestra
Sunday, December 15 at 3:00 p.m.
St. Paul’s Church
166 High Street, Newburyport

Arcangelo Corelli next to a bowl of tikka masala

It seems that around this time of year people are specifically drawn to reassuring music. Maybe there is too much dissonance in spring as plants struggle to send up shoots through rock and soil. As far as I’m concerned, summer doesn’t lend itself to contentment with its frenzy of growth and 96° days dripping with humidity. Autumn has a reek of death as trees and animals hunker down for the lean months.

December is the perfect time for comforting music. But what does this mean? Like comfort food, everyone has a different idea of what this should be. For many Americans, the expression conjures up images of macaroni and cheese, pot roast, or apple pie. In Tokyo it could be a piping hot bowl of ramen; in Naples, pizza margherita.  In Manila it might be a platter of adobo chicken and in London of course it is a plate of the English national dish: chicken tikka masala. https://medium.com/@sbwardle/englands-national-dish-chicken-tikka-masala-23d9986c736f

7-year old girl eating pizza
Seven-year-old Eliana Razzino Yang cultivating a
life-long love of Neapolitan comfort food

But what is the equivalent of comfort music?  My personal go-to after a long day is Bach’s B Minor Mass; Joshua Rifkin’s intimate version is my favorite.

I often put on Sibelius’ Second Symphony; it fills me with awe at the vastness of nature but also reminds me of my father. This is lonely music but still strangely comforting. Somehow this piece puts things into perspective and gives me a sense of humility. I know that sounds touchy-feely and maybe I’m not even totally sure what I’m saying here but that’s how I feel. This is a wonderful performance conducted by Colin Davis.


Recently I’ve been listening over and over to the Mother Goose Suite (Ma Mère l'Oye) by Ravel in the original piano four hands version. Here is the first movement, about two minutes long, with some simple animations. There is something almost painfully touching about this music. When I put it on my breathing immediately slows and cares wash away.


But let’s be clear: I don’t want comforting all the time. Beethoven’s string quartet Opus 131 is full of tension and uncertainty and I love it partly for that reason; Bartok’s fourth quartet (which we did last summer) can be outright ugly but those savage rhythms are so alive; Shostakovich’s caustic music is never reassuring. Art by definition runs the gamut of human emotion. Who would want apple pie with every meal?

And yet…sometimes you just want to put your feet up by the fire with a blanket and mug of hot chocolate. Which brings me to Corelli’s “Christmas Concerto” and our Winter Baroque concert. This music is just incredibly beautiful, reassuring, comforting, a balm for the soul. The fast and slow movements alternately inhale/exhale full of energy followed by a calm release.


(The link to the performance is at the bottom of the webpage.)

Our concert is Sunday, 15 December at 3:00 at St. Paul’s and runs a little over an hour. The Corelli ends the program.

Newburyport Festival Baroque Orchestra
Nurit Pacht, concertmaster

Johann Sebastian Bach: Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue in D Minor, BMV 903 for harpsichord
Antonio Vivaldi: Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 8, RV 315, "Summer" from “The Four Seasons”
George Friderick Handel: Violin Sonata Op.1, No. 5
Francesco Saverio Geminiani: Cello Sonata in A Minor, Opus 5, Number 6
Domenico Scarlatti: Sonata in B Minor, K.87 for harpsichord
Arcangelo Corelli: Concerto No.8 in G minor “Fatto per la notte di Natale”

I’ll finish with what I consider the most beautiful music ever written: Mondnacht (“moonlit night”) by Schumann in a performance by the incomparable Deitrich Fischer-Dieskau with Günther Weissenborn on piano.


David Yang, Artistic Director

Postscript: For the contrarians out there (this is Newburyport, after all), if you prefer to hear disturbing music during the holidays, here is the first movement of Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire,” as refreshingly bizarre as when it premiered in 1912. This alarming version is set to video footage from the Teletubbies. View at your own risk.


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