Hark! CMAC delivers time-worn tunes, feisty skits

Like a liquor-heavy recipe for eggnog, the Chicago Men’s A Cappella group serves up holiday hits with a twist.

By Marcella De Laurentiis

As tired as you are of turkey leftovers, you’re also probably exhausted from the never-ending stream of Christmas music already plaguing America. The tendency for these songs to be played from November 1 onward makes some of us into Scrooges: Shouldn’t Christmas carols be rarer than an O-chem student passing an exam? So it came as no surprise last December when yet another sign advertising a Christmas concert was posted around campus. What did come as a surprise, however, was the charm with which the Chicago Men’s A Cappella (CMAC) group spiced up traditional holiday songs, much like a liquor-heavy recipe for eggnog. This year, expectations are high for CMAC’s Third Annual Christmas Concert.

The concert will feature some of CMAC’s specialty songs plus all the holiday favorites. It will also include a few skits and an audience sing-along. This year, the proceeds from the first concert of the night will be donated to the William H. Ray Elementary School, right here in Hyde Park.

CMAC isn’t just known for its excellent Christmas carols. As fourth-year baritone Carmel Levy put it, “There are really two types of songs we do. I like to characterize them as fun and good—not to say the good [songs] aren’t fun and the fun [songs] aren’t good! My favorite fun song is ‘Winter Song.’ My favorite good song is ‘Ave Maria.’” Levy claims that the end of “Ave Maria” will make “everyone’s knees turn to jelly” and added, “There’s a whole 16 bars of pure ecstasy at the end of this song that is just great to hear.”

“My favorite song is ‘Viva L’amour’,” said Peter Brown, a third-year bass in the group. “It’s a great song about friendship and hanging out with the guys in the bar. It’s very catchy.” Both charming and vocally demanding, “Viva L’amour” is always a crowd-pleaser. Although the songs are the main attraction, CMAC does not stop there. In the past, the group has performed comical skits, and this year’s concert is no exception.

Levy explained that the skits are “for those of us who are more theatrical.” After all, quite a few of the members grew up doing theater but replaced their script with sheet music upon hearing CMAC perform. Levy is one of them. He said he was “pulled off the street” during his second year and converted from a thespian to a singer. He’s confident that the skit he’s performing in will be a “knockout” and a “show-stopper.”

The Christmas concert is conducted by Bruce Tammen, a former University of Virginia choir conductor. According to Brown, “Bruce is the man. He just knows what he’s doing. He’s extremely talented and knows how to work with a group of guys and get them to perform really well.”

And though the level of skill demonstrated might make a listener think CMAC is all about business and never about having fun, this is far from the case. Levy said that “CMAC is a heck of a lot of fun,” but said that to have fun, the group must be excellent. So although Tammen can, as Brown said, “hang out like one of the guys,” the conductor still demands perfection.

Levy added, “Bruce takes us from a group of mediocre singers to excellent ones. He believes in hard work and unity. No one is supposed to stand out. We’re supposed to be excellent as a whole. Bruce has an amazing ability to extract the excellence out of you.”

Whether it is the exceptional singing or the amusing skits, something about CMAC’s performance keeps audience members returning year after year, and has attracted new choir members to the group. CMAC’s numbers have recently swelled from 12 to 40, giving conductor Tammen more talent with which to work. Based on the great attendance at last year’s concert and CMAC’s growing popularity on campus, a packed house and a brilliant performance is as certain as your mother’s continued denials of Santa’s nonexistence. And if you, like Peter Brown, think that “there’s nothing better than Christmas songs,” go experience the sights and sounds of CMAC’s Third Annual Christmas Concert. Instead of bah humbugging your way through the holiday season, the performance just might have you singing along.