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December 16, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, December 16, 2005

Holiday twist Holiday twist (December 16, 2005)

Armed with percussion, penny whistles and Portuguese lyrics, Palo Alto musicians shake up traditional carols

by Rebecca Wallace

This is not your father's "O Come All Ye Faithful."

It kicks off with a gospel flair, and then turns "disco-y" at the end, says Benita Kenn, one of the singers with the Palo Alto-based Gryphon Carolers.

Then there's the group's version of "Angels We Have Heard on High," another unusual arrangement by Ed Johnson, who founded the Gryphon Carolers with singer-songwriter Carol McComb.

Kenn chuckles, then sings the beginning of Johnson's calypso-fringed arrangement: "Dayo! Dayo! In excelsis deo."

At the annual concert of the Carolers and the Gryphon All-Stars -- the instrumental group who plays with the singers and alone -- audience members never know exactly what kind of zest the holiday music will have. The eclectic musical blend has clearly proved popular: this year the concert moves from the 700-seat Dinkelspiel Auditorium at Stanford University to the 1400-seat Fox Theatre in Redwood City.

The Dec. 18 program also includes arrangements of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," "Nunca Mais Desespera" (a Portuguese song written by Johnson and Leslie Evers," and a Celtic medley leading into "I Saw Three Ships."

There will also be a number written by Kern herself: "New York City Christmas," a plaintive carol with an early-music feel.

The Gryphon groups have their roots at Gryphon Stringed Instruments in Palo Alto, where Johnson and McComb put together the first group of singers 24 years ago. Armed with sheets of Christmas-carol lyrics, the small throng serenaded strollers in downtown Palo Alto.

Nowadays, there are 35 singers -- and the music has gotten much more complicated. Johnson's lush creations, said Kenn, who sings alto, "are the most acrobatic vocal arrangements I've ever heard."

"Sometimes we groan at first," she added fondly.

Adding to the mix are the All-Stars, who include guitarists, pianists and players of percussion, strings and penny whistle. Weekly Gryphon rehearsals begin in September, and the volunteer group also performs at local nursing homes during the weeks leading up to the December concert.

In addition, many of the singers perform with other choral groups, and some All-Stars are touring musicians, Kenn said.

This year, the Gryphon groups also pay tribute to another set of musicians -- albeit fictitious. The second set of the Dec. 18 concert kicks off with "A Mighty Hard Christmas," a parody of the folk-singing movie "A Mighty Wind." As a change from traditional holiday duds, the All-Stars will be decked out like 1960s folk musicians.

What: The 24th annual Gryphon Holiday Concert, performed by the Gryphon Carolers and the Gryphon All-Stars

Where: Fox Theatre, 2219 Broadway, Redwood City

When: 3 p.m. Dec. 18 - NOTE: Previously, the time was incorrectly printed. This is the correct date and time.

Cost: Tickets are $25 general and $15 for seniors and children under 12.

Info: For advance tickets, call (650) FOX-4119. More information is at

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