For fans of the Island Community Chorus — and they are legion — the Vineyard’s Christmas season officially begins when the choir presents its annual holiday concert at the Old Whaling Church in Edgartown.
This year, the Chorus will sing its program at 7:30 pm on Saturday, December 6, and again at 3 pm on Sunday, December 7. Each performance will be followed by a festive reception downstairs in the Baylies Room, replete with sweet and savory treats prepared for their guests by members of the choir.
No holiday in the year is as defined by its music as Christmas, and Peter Boak, director of the chorus, has built up a rich library since the group’s first holiday concerts in 1999. “I always consider this the first concert of our season,” Mr. Boak says. “September is when we come back to rehearsing after our summer break.” The chorus also gives a spring concert in April, and opens the season for the Camp-Meeting Association at the Tabernacle in July before taking the summer off.
This year, some hundred singers gathered on the first Monday after Labor Day in their rehearsal space, Trinity Methodist Church on the Campground, and promptly got to work learning a lively Mark Hayes arrangement of the traditional holiday tune, “Jingle Bells.” These songs of sleighbells and holly and the baby in the manger sound out-of-place in early September, but the weeks of rehearsal pass quickly until the season catches up with the program, and it’s time to take the stage again.
Mr. Boak declares himself pleased with the choir’s work during this fall semester: 12 intense Monday nights in all, plus an all-hands-on-deck dress rehearsal this Friday. “I’m thrilled with the way things are going,” he says. “We’re singing the concert musically, not dealing with last-minute details. I can remember earlier years when we were still learning notes in our final rehearsals; that hasn’t been happening now for a couple of years. We’re really making music.”
This weekend’s program comprises favorites from the chorus’s library, although many of them haven’t been brought out for performance for more than a decade. The only entirely new music for chorus veterans has been the “Jingle Bells” arrangement. A show-stopping piece from the Boston Pops repertoire, “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” which recapitulates the history of Western music in a dizzyingly creative reimagining of the well-known folk song, is back by popular demand from last year. After the chorus’s first performance of the piece last December, he recalls, he heard only one refrain from the audience: “You’ve got to sing that every year.”
Mr. Boak admits he had no inkling what the chorus would someday become when he directed its first performance, a concert celebrating the new Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center in 1996. “We were just going to learn some music and give a concert,” he says with a shrug. In the two decades since, the Chorus has become not just a cultural treasure but an important Island social institution. To the suggestion that for many of its members, the Island Community Chorus is their church, he quickly agrees: “That’s right. It’s where they get their spiritual nourishment.”
With soloists from the ranks of the choir, with guest musicians from the Island community and with the incomparable keyboard work of Garrett Brown, accompanist, on the Steinway grand and the historic Fisher pipe organ, the walls of the Old Whaling Church will echo with holiday harmonies this Saturday and Sunday. It’s a celebration of music as the essence of Christmas, and the beloved stories and songs that the season brings around each year.
Admission at the door is a suggested donation of $15. For more information, visit islandchorus.org.
Nis Kildegaard, an occasional writer for the Times, has been a member of the Island Community Chorus since 2004.