After our last child graduated, we didn’t have to go to high school Christmas concerts anymore if we didn’t want to, and we didn’t. We were proud of our offspring — still are — but thankful it was over. No more out-of-tune high school orchestras! No more unnaturally cheerful renditions of the execrable “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas”! No more audience participation singing of “The Twelve Days of Christmas”!
Yet last weekend found us at not one, but two, Christmas concerts. Even though these were adult events, they were still a lot like the high school concerts, with ensembles parading onto and off the platform, together with audience sing-alongs.
The first of these was downtown, in the old part of the Bethel Christian Fellowship complex on East Avenue. This is a fine, old-fashioned sanctuary with a balcony, originally built in 1885 as the Asbury Methodist Church and eventually sold to the Pentecostals. It was packed to the gills; we suspected that many in the audience were friends, relatives, or parents of the performers. The high school concerts again!
But, to be fair, it was better. A brass quintet playing Bach, a little shaky at times, but ably on the whole. A junior high school choir, well above average, led by Carl Wager. A very serviceable string quartet, inexplicably miked, playing a movement of Smetana (we didn’t get the Christmas connection). A young woman singing “O Holy Night” (two verses would have been enough). A remarkably good flute quintet. Regrettably, some carol-singing from the audience.
And some modestly attired young women (evidently Bethel parishioners), the “Yahweh dancers,” doing “interpretive dance” to recordings of Twila Paris. Here’s a trend of which Emsworth decidedly disapproves. Are our churches so desperate to attract young families that they need to guarantee teenage dancers a chance to perform in church? Personally, we couldn’t help thinking of Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn leading the women of River City: “One Grecian urn! Two Grecian urns!”
At any rate, we were there mainly to hear the Robert Shewan Chorale, which was giving its inaugural performance. The group consists of about forty hand-picked veterans of the Roberts Wesleyan Chorale, many of whom are music teachers themselves now. These former students of Dr. Shewan had sung under him, knew what he expected, and sang with a will.
We were glad to hear the unmistakable, robust sound of a Shewan-directed chorus again. This time Dr. Shewan had mature rather than college-age voices to work with, and even from our balcony seats we could see the fire in his eye. We were grateful to him for his compassionate decision to close the concert with a glorious “And the Glory of the Lord” instead of the ubiquitous “Hallelujah Chorus.”
Sunday evening found us at St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church to hear the Greece Symphony Orchestra and the Greece Choral Society. There was another full house at this venue, a contemporary sanctuary whose ample seating capacity compensates for its bleak architecture and dubious stadium-like acoustics.
The high quality of these two groups of volunteers is, I think, due in good measure to continuity in leadership. Ralph Zecchino has led the Choral Society for decades and is still at the top of his game. We couldn’t help noticing that many of the members of the Choral Society have apparently been with him for decades, too. New blood is going to be needed.
Besides the orchestra and the Choral Society, we heard a high school women’s chorus and quite a good solo rendition of “O Holy Night” (only two verses!). The audience was bludgeoned into singing “O Come, All Ye Faithful” and “White Christmas.” The Choral Society gave us two John Rutter pieces (Emsworth’s own choir is doing Rutter this Christmas too) and a Robert Shaw medley.
For their inconsiderate decision to end yet another holiday concert with the “Hallelujah Chorus,” Zecchino and orchestra director David Fetler were duly punished. As many people know, there are four beats of rest at the end of the “Hallelujah Chorus,” just before the final “Hallelujah.” Fetler, who was conducting the combined orchestra and chorus, quite properly treated the rest as a grand pause. But at least half of the audience thought the piece was over and started to clap. Their applause drowned out Handel’s last four chords.