This weekend, the Island Community Chorus – 130 voices strong – will wish Martha’s Vineyard a joyous holiday season in song. And, as always, a selection of music spanning the globe, as well as many decades, will be featured.
Music director Peter Boak has chosen 10 choral arrangements that celebrate not just Christmas but the holiday season and spirit. The chorister army will, this year, offer seasonal fare in four languages and running the gamut from a playful arrangement of “Jingle Bells” to a transcendently beautiful “Alleluiah.”
Said longtime chorus member Nis Kildegaard, “It’s a very multicultural seasonal event. It’s not a narrowly Christmas-oriented concert. Peter is really wonderful at reaching across all the traditions to make a concert.”
Though the program generally veers away from the expected caroling fare, there are a few nods to the tradition, including this year’s opening song, an arrangement of “Jingle Bells” by the acclaimed British choral conductor Sir David Willcocks. Notes Mr. Kildegaard, “The basic tenor for the program is a few familiar carols but some very special arrangements of them.”
Of the segue into the next song, Ms. Kildegaard said, “We go from racing through the snow to walking through a snowy landscape.” The ethereally lovely “Velvet Shoes” is a cherished poem by 19th century poet and novelist Elinor Wylie set to music. “What I look for a lot of times,” said Mr. Boak, “is not only good compositions, but wonderful words by wonderful poets. I like to have at least one selection with great text.”
The program will include one song each sung in Hebrew and Yiddish. “Hine Ma Tov” is a Jewish hymn traditionally sung at Shabbat feasts. The lyrics translate, appropriately, “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.” The Yiddish lullaby “Rozhinkes mit Mandlen” (Raisins and Almonds) is one of three lullabies in the program. Says Mr. Kildegaard, “There’s something cozy about lullabies in the winter.”
The other two hail from Germany, (“The Virgin’s Slumber Song”) and from Wales, (“The Gift of Angels”). Mr. Boak points out that the latter was popularized by its inclusion in the 1987 movie “Empire of the Sun.” He calls it hauntingly pretty and describes it as “a song about how beautiful the angel’s music is even though we humans can’t hear it.”
Similarly two sacred music pieces benefit from the power of numbers. “Beati Quorum Via,” a single Latin phrase from Psalm 119, will be sung a capella in six parts. According to Mr. Boak, the piece which he describes as “lush and gooey,” was arranged by Charles Stanford for the Trinity College choir and is a classic from the English choral literature.
“Alleluiah” by Ralph Manuel is one of the gems that Mr. Boak discovered surfing the web. “The chorus just fell in love with it the first time we rehearsed it,” he said. Mr. Boak and accompanist Garrett Brown spend months every year researching music for the annual concert. “We’re looking for pieces we haven’t done before that have great melodies,” Mr. Boak said. “But we also look for pieces to make the choir dig their heels in and get to work.”
And hard work is what ultimately creates the phenomenon of perfect choral unity. The members practice for two hours every Monday night starting on Labor Day. According to Mr. Kildegaard, the rehearsals are intense and attendance is required. Members who miss more than three rehearsals cannot perform at the concert.
Two musicians (besides Mr. Brown on piano) will be featured this year. Susan McGhee will add violin to the folky Yiddish selection and Sonia Saunders-Jones will play flute on the Hebrew hymn. Ms. Saunders-Jones is one of the former recipients of the Community Chorus sponsored annual scholarship and she has travelled from New York for the group’s yearly concerts for the past few years.
The chorus members represent a wide spectrum of the community, including all ages and levels of experience. Many are long-time members.
With 130 participants contributing sweet and savory treats (of the edible as well as musical variety), the traditional reception following the concert is always guaranteed to be a feast.
Island Community Chorus Holiday Concert, Saturday, Dec. 3, 7:30 pm and Sunday, Dec. 4, 3 pm, Old Whaling Church, Edgartown. Reception follows in Baylies Room. $15.