There’s something transcendently soothing about choral music. The sensation of being enveloped in human melody produces an effect akin to watching a movie in surround sound. To enjoy this experience in the austere environs of the historic Old Whaling Church — where once townsfolk gathered to celebrate community, as well as the divine — surrounded by neighbors enjoying the simple pleasure of a range of voices united in harmony, is to be transported to another century — regardless of the vintage of the music.
Such was the opportunity last weekend as the Island Community Chorus performed their traditional holiday concert, with one show on Saturday evening and a matinée on Sunday. In a pre-concert interview, conductor Peter Boak explained that the highly diversified selection of songs was chosen to “Encompass all of the spirit of December.” There was a Hanukkah, as well as a New Year’s piece, and a couple of traditional Christmas songs, but the majority of the offerings were simply works that conveyed a sense of serenity and hope — perfect winter fare.
The concert began with the 110-member choir harmonizing “Thys Yool,” a modern song based on a medieval text, followed by the traditional English carol “The Holly and the Ivy” — both sweetly uplifting choral pieces.
Then Mr. Boak, in introducing the next song, said, “This is one of your eye-closers. You might just want to sit and get lost in the sound and the lyrics and the text.”
And it would have been impossible not to get lost in the sublimely beautiful “Sure on this Shining Night,” an excerpt from a James Agee poem set to music. The multi-layered arrangement with a lovely soprano vibrato part imparted the quality of a hymn, while the lyrics suggested a spiritual yet earthly experience.
A traditional Hanukkah song, “Hanerot Halalu,” followed. Steve Tully, on clarinet, accompanied the choir for this piece, which, as Mr. Boak pointed out, gave the lively piece an authentic Klezmer feel.
This was the first of a range of ethnic songs. A Kenyan folk song, with Brian Weiland providing a steady beat on a Djemba drum, an Irish lullaby accompanied by Susan McGhee on violin, and a Spanish lullaby gave the concert an international flavor.
The two lullabies were paired by Mr. Boak, who says, referring to the meaning of the holiday, “I always pull in a lullaby because I think of babies this time of year.” As if on cue, a baby in the audience started vocalizing during the introduction.
The Spanish lullaby “Nanita” was particularly pretty. The inclusion of the violin in the Irish “Gartan Mother’s Lullaby” gave the song a wonderful authentic flavor, as did the drumming in the Kenyan song, “Wana Baraka,” which was an unusual choice, and a highlight of the evening.
Another highlight was the lovely “What Sweeter Music Can We Bring,” a 17th century poem set to music. As Mr. Boak explained before the concert, the song presents a challenge to the stamina of the singers, particularly the sopranos because, “It sits in a very, very high register.” The result was a soaring, angelic piece that really showed off the excellence of the soprano voices.
On introducing the penultimate song of the concert, “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” set to music, Mr. Boak noted, “It’s pure schtick, so have fun with it.” The style changed verse to verse, with one stanza spoken rather than sung, and an extra verse was added at the end summing up the night after Christmas. Ken Romero contributed his strong tenor voice for a short solo.
It was a nice bright and entertaining finish to an evening, which concluded with a choral arrangement of “Auld Lang Syne,” with a beautiful solo by soprano Jenny Friedman.
Concertgoers enjoyed a reception with the choir members after the show on Saturday night (and again Sunday afternoon). It was obvious that all felt uplifted and prepared to face the cold, dark winter’s evening with a warm glow.
To quote the lyrics from “What Sweeter Music Can We Bring,” which compares the joy of Christ’s birth with the pleasures of summer: “Dark and dull night, fly hence away, And give the honor to this day, That sees December turned to May.”
What a wonderful holiday gift the chorus gave to its audiences — May in December.
Gwyn McAllister, of Oak Bluffs, is a frequent contributor to The Times.