The Revels productions are seasonal concerts of traditional and early music that take place in various locations around the United States.1 Every Revels organisation has an annual program for the holiday season, and many put on shows at other times of year as well, such as the Summer Solstice and the Autumnal Equinox. The premise of Revels is to present a programme that combines music and drama in a way that encourages audience participation and strives to reach the highest level of involvement possible for the audience.
The best-known takes place in Cambridge, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston. Cambridge Revels performs, in addition to the standard holiday programme, at Midsummer, the Autumn Equinox, and in the spring. Throughout the year there are other various Revels-sponsored events, like 'Salons', featuring music or a music-related presentation accompanied by light refreshment; and the 'Circle of Song' programme that visits nearby schools. The performances will often focus on a particular culture's traditional music. In the past, the vast majority of shows focus around Western culture, Revels has recently started to branch out and include music from places such as China, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America.
The first Christmas Revels took place in 1957 in New York City, staged by Revels founder John Langstaff. A second Christmas Revels was televised in 1966 by NBC, and then in 1971 Langstaff's daughter Carol suggested that he do another Revels in the Boston area. Compiling a large group of volunteer performers, there were three performances in Harvard's Sanders Theatre, which is still the home of Christmas Revels. By 1974, the Langstaffs had gathered a group of 'Revellers'. They then were able to found a non-profit organisation, christened Revels, Inc.; so-called because of atmosphere of joy and celebration Langstaff wished to provide in his shows. Since John Langstaff retired from his directing position, Patrick Swanson and George Emlen have taken over the job as Artistic Director and Music Director, respectively.
Revels For All Seasons
The Revels present quarterly programmes, which often occur on or near the solstices and equinoxes. A detailed explanation of typical Revels productions now follows:
The Christmas Revels
The grandest spectacle of them all is the Christmas Revels, a show that runs for two and-a-half-hours, showcases holiday traditions of a particular culture through story and song. In the past few years, the Cambridge Revels have transported their audiences to the camps of the Romany gypsies, the Italian Renaissance, Appalachia, Tudor England, ancient Armenia, the Scottish Highlands and Acadia. Each performance manages, through sparse scenery and vibrant, historically-accurate costumes, to evoke a feeling of a completely different place and time. Each production faithfully includes audience favourites 'Lord of the Dance' and 'The Sussex Mummers Carol' that have featured in Revels since its inception.
Since 1971, Christmas Revels has taken place in Sanders Theatre, located in Memorial Hall on the campus of Harvard University. The building was built in memory of those Harvard students who died in battle during the American Civil War. Reminiscent of a Gothic cathedral, it serves no actual religious purpose. It also is said to contain the largest collection of stained glass of any secular building in Massachusetts.
The Spring/Midsummer Revels
Originally, the warmer weather's production was the Spring Revels, a variation on the Christmas Revels that took place on or around the Vernal Equinox. It either focused on a culture in the way the Christmas production does, or had a maritime, 'Sea Revels' theme. Cultures like Cajun New Orleans and the immigrants to the United States have been celebrated in this venue.
Since 2003, however, the Midsummer Revels has become more en vogue: a programme that visits different cultures, like those of England, China and Brazil, that have influenced Boston's ethnic diversity. The basis of this programme is a play, based on traditional mummers plays, in which the sun has been stolen and our faithful friends must journey around the world to bring it back, finally arriving in Boston Harbour again for the traditional finale, the Scottish folk song 'Wild Mountain Thyme'.
Midsummer Revels are held on the steps of the Children's Museum in the heart of downtown Boston. This is handy for the many families with small children who attend Revels concerts, as they can let their children play in the museum while they wait for the concert to start. However, the Children's Museum location is nowhere near as nice as Sanders Theatre, partly due to the fact that the audience is seated on asphalt in front of a very small stage, which becomes rather uncomfortable in the course of the 90-minute performance. Additionally, there is no reserved seating, so to secure a good place you must arrive and deposit your blanket or folding chairs hours ahead of time.
The Midsummer Revels are considered to be more of a family-friendly event than the Christmas programme. However, all ages are perfectly welcome at any Revels performance.
RiverSing is Revels' autumn equinox programme, in which the performers and audience sing as the sun sets. There is no rotating theme for this production; instead the audience is treated to a variety of autumn-related songs, led by a giant puppet located on the Weeks Footbridge over the Charles River. The audience is seated on either side of the Charles Rivers and attempt to 'bridge the water with voice and light'.
Though for each performance Cambridge Revels holds auditions to form its volunteer chorus, there are some talented musicians and performers that get asked back again and again.
John Langstaff originally led the singing onstage, but since his retirement David Coffin has taken over the task. Coffin, the owner of a full, rich bass-baritone voice and the player of various archaic wind instruments, has been performing with Revels since 1980 in the chorus and as a featured singer, and in 1991 was granted the title of Master of Ceremonies. Jayne Tankersley, a soprano specialising in Renaissance music, has only recently come into her own as a Revels soloist, appearing in the 2001 Tudor England and 2003 Scottish Highlands productions. She and Coffin have sung many a duet, and their voices blend quite well together. Another Revels regular, Janice Allen, often takes the role of lead woman soloist and has appeared in many a Revels performance, most recently the 2004 Midsummer Revels. Countless other artists have also been featured in Revels over the years.
If you've decided to bite the bullet and attend a Cambridge Revels performance, you can find out more about upcoming events and purchase tickets on the official Revels website. If you live in the USA, but far, far away from Cambridge, Massachusetts, you can also discover more information about a Revels organisation near you.
And what if you don't live anywhere near a Revels at all? Don't entirely despair, because Cambridge Revels offers many interesting Revels-related paraphernalia for sale. Should you enjoy Revels so much you want to audition for an upcoming performance, the website will also keep you advised of the time and place for this and all other upcoming events.
And remember, whatever the season, Revels is always ready to celebrate!