First Person: Christmas concert – On stage with the St. Teresa of Calcutta choir
By ERIN ROLL
In “First Person” we report on events in, well, the first person. Reporters draw on their own experience at the event to describe it.
Oh, the weather outside is frightful...
And indeed it was. Outside of Immaculate Conception Church on this particular Sunday afternoon, Dec. 16, the weather was cold, gray, wet and generally miserable. It was a good day to stay inside where it was warm and listen to music.
Especially if it’s choral Christmas music sung by two choirs, adults’ and children’s, with a brass quintet backing them up.
It was the day of the St. Teresa of Calcutta parish Christmas concert, featuring the choirs of the parish and the Gramercy Brass, all under the direction of Preston Dibble.
And at 2:30, I, along with the rest of the parish adults’ choir, was getting ready to take the stage.
Hearing holiday music live, and in concert — the music’s right there, all around you, and when it’s done right, it really moves you in a way that’s almost impossible to describe in words. For me, it’s definitely better than just hearing it on the radio. (Though there’s nothing wrong with the radio, in and of itself.)
We’d just had our last run-through, a check to make sure we were all right on the tricky bits.
Some of us were sitting in the side pews, watching everyone file in, or chatting quietly about this and that.
We’d been rehearsing since well before Thanksgiving; I think we started some of the pieces in October. And now it all came down to this.
The concert was part of the parish’s Music in Montclair series, which features performances by artists within the parish, such as the choir, and by local and regional groups such as Ember, the NJ Choral Society and the Oratorio Society of New Jersey.
For this concert, there were 52 of us: 29 adults, 16 children in the cherubs and choristers’ choirs, the Gramercy Brass quintet, plus Preston and organist Gregory Dlugos.
At 10 minutes before the concert, the pews were filling up. A lot of people had evidently decided that we were worth braving the bad weather for. Definitely a good sign.
The Gramercy Brass started tuning up: the familiar A note that tells you that it’s almost “go time.”
We took our places along the sides of the sanctuary, the children’s choirs went up onto the altar, and Preston went up to the podium.
Life in the choir
I have been an alto in the choir for more or less three years, so I’m still relatively a newbie. This was my second time singing in a choir concert; the first was earlier this year, when we gave a concert to raise money for the youth mission trip to Nicaragua.
We have some professional singers in the choir — and some very good ones at that. The rest of us are very enthusiastic amateurs — also some very good ones at that. And it’s a good group; everyone gets along with one another.
Thursday nights will generally find us all in the basement rehearsal room at Immaculate, with Preston going over the music for the next weekend’s Mass with us, or longer-term pieces for an important Mass or a concert.
Every time we sing, whether it’s at a regular Mass or a special concert, I always wonder what we sound like to the audience in the pews, since the sound is obviously traveling away from us.
Very hard work
This year marks the 200th anniversary of “Silent Night” being composed, the lyrics written by Austrian priest Joseph Mohr in 1818. Franz Xavier Gruber, the organist of the parish church in Arnsdorf, Austria, set them to music, and the song was performed for the Christmas Eve Mass that year. So we did three different arrangements of “Silent Night:” a choral arrangement in a different setting by Michael John Trotta; a partly-in-English, partly-in-German arrangement as part of the “Christmas Flourish;” and then the version out of the Gather hymnal that most people were familiar with.
I admit that I took one look at the score of “Christmas Flourish” when we got it and wondered “How on earth are we supposed to learn all of this?” At 10 minutes, it was the longest individual piece on the program.
The repertoire started with “The Yearning,” an Advent piece by Craig Courtney and Susan Bentall Boersma. We’ve done it several times since I’ve been with the choir. It’s one of my favorites.
Singing in the choir is great fun, but it’s also very hard work. You really have to be on your vocal toes, whether it’s the regular Mass stuff or the special pieces. And the repertoire we sang for the concert was a real vocal workout. There were the notes we had to hold for several measures for “Puer Natus,” and the closed-mouth, way-up-in-the-sinuses humming for “Away in the Manger.” But the haunting, ethereal effect we got from it was definitely more than worth all the practicing.
The concert went VERY well.
We got generous applause after each piece, and Father Benny Prado had some warm words for us when it came time for his remarks. And I saw lots of happy parents taking photos when the children were singing.
By the time “Joy to the World” came around, I think there was a sense of, “all right, everyone, we came through, we did great, we’re on the home stretch, time to pull out all the stops!”
Which we did, with the brass going full tilt, the sopranos and the tenors doing some pretty impressive vocal fireworks, and the altos, the basses and the kids giving it all they had.
And the crowd went wild.
We took our bows, and retreated from the stage.
It seems to me that rehearsals are to a concert, basically, what Advent is to the whole Christmas season. It’s the big run-up. There’s a lot of prep work that needs to be done, and there are a few (all right, maybe more than a few) moments when you ask, are we ever going to get this right?
And then everything comes together, just right, and you think, “Wow. We did this. And it sounds amazing.”
The concert was not even a few minutes over when people already started talking about what next year’s concert will be like.
What will next year bring? We’ll see!