Music for the holidays

Island Community Chorus brings us the holiday concert “Sing We Joyous!”


It’s indeed that joyous time of year, as the Island Community Chorus’s annual holiday concert delights us at the Old Whaling Church on Saturday, Dec. 2, at 7:30 pm, and 3 pm on Sunday, Dec. 3. Given the vast array of pieces, I wasn’t surprised to hear from director William Peek that the group of about 80 singers began practicing in September. “It’s a very interesting program,” he says. “It ranges from Handel’s “Messiah” to a Christmas song from Kenya, and a jazz Hanukkah song.”

Asked how he makes his selection, Peek explains, “I try to make the program varied, things from different parts of the world, and from different times in music history. I also try to pick pieces that the chorus will enjoy singing, and the audience will enjoy hearing. This time around, there are a lot that aren’t commonly heard. I hope people will enjoy that.”

Along with Peek will be Molly Sturges on the piano and Brian Weiland playing percussion. The concert will feature several soloists, including Emily Hewson, Grace Brouillette, Dorian Lopes, David Behnke, and Darby Patterson.

First up is “Wake, Awake, for Night Is Flying.” Composed in about 1600 by Philipp Nicolai and harmonized by Johann Sebastian Bach around 1730, it is considered by many one of the greatest Lutheran chorales. According to the United Methodist Church Discipleship Ministries website, “‘Wake, Awake’ gained much popularity among Germans. Eventually, the hymn reached Catherine Winkworth (1827–78), a young Anglican Englishwoman studying German. Winkworth published ‘Lyra Germanica II’ (1858), in which she translated ‘Wachet auf’ as ‘Wake, Awake.’ The hymn gained much esteem from this translation among English-speaking faith traditions.”

It might not sound like the holidays without a selection from George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah,” which here will include the tenor solo “Comfort Ye My People.” When it was first performed in 1742, according to the Smithsonian Magazine website, “The men and women in attendance sat mesmerized from the moment the tenor followed the mournful string overture with his piercing opening line: ‘Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.’”

The chorus will also sing “And the Glory of the Lord,” one of the world’s most famous pieces of classical music, whose lyrics are based on the Old Testament Book of Haggai.

Michael Praetorius’s “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” returns us to another great Lutheran chorale, from about 1600.

Robert Applebaum’s “Five–Sided S’vivon” is a jazzy 5/4 setting of the traditional Hanukkah song “S’vivon, Sov, Sov, Sov,” which Peek says is very fun and challenging to sing.

This is followed up with an Island connection, though an older one. “Behold That Star!” is the setting of a Christmas spiritual by Harry T. Burleigh, a distinguished early 20th century African American composer and singer who spent many summers in Oak Bluffs.

Then, we travel to Africa for “Natufurahi Siku Ya Leo” (“Let Us Rejoice Today”), which is a traditional Taita melody sung in Swahili, arranged by Boniface Mganga, the founder and director of the Muungano National Choir of Kenya. “The chorus has found the words to be challenging,” says Peek.

We travel to Great Britain next, with an exuberant 21st century anthem, “Where Riches Is Everlastingly,” sung a cappella with percussion. English composer Bob Chilcott uses a 16th century English text, but describes the piece as a “joyful rhumba.”

“It’s a lot of fun. It’s probably one of the only rhumbas set to a 16th century text, but that’s what Chilcott likes to do,” Peek says.

The concert continues with three joyful carols by the brilliant but eccentric early 20th century English composer Philip Heseltine, who composed under the name Peter Warlock.

The concert ends with the little-known gem “All Kinds of Christmases,” a great “lost” Christmas song by Clark Gesner, best known as the author and composer of the musical “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” which is offered in a new choral setting by Peek himself.

“I think it will be a beautiful program,” Peek says. “It’s a lot of fun to see people enjoy singing, and hopefully, it’s fun to share the music that people will enjoy.”

“Sing We Joyous!” concert of joyful holiday music by the Island Community Chorus on Saturday, Dec. 2, 7:30 pm, and Sunday, Dec. 3, 3 pm at the Old Whaling Church in Edgartown.