Each year, an abundance of prompts appears to remind us that the winter holiday season is approaching. The stores start decorating before trick-or-treaters have finished consuming their bounty of candy. Sunday newspaper editions bulge with advertisements. And every online site you visit has a holiday-themed banner inviting you to find the perfect gift.
For me, though, the season officially begins with the first playing of my favorite seasonal selection, Liona Boyd’s “A Guitar for Christmas.” Many (many) years ago, a dear friend gave me this record and I fell instantly in love. The LP is now unplayable, but the CD version still brings the magic. I feel a sense of peace and serenity when I hear Boyd’s renditions of hymns like “What Child is This?” and “Away in a Manger, ” a masterwork like J. S. Bach’s “Sheep May Safely Graze,” and the opening track, “Christmas Overture,” a masterful medley of sacred songs. And, that sensation is often strong enough to dispel any bah-humbug-ish tendencies I might be harboring.
Music has power – to spark a memory and bring a smile, to soothe your soul and to take your mind to a place where beauty reigns. And if you are seeking a special musical experience such as this to plump up your heart this holiday season, I have a great suggestion to pass along.
This Sunday, December 17, at 4:00 p.m. at the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank, the Monmouth Civic Chorus presents their Christmas concert, “Joy to the World.” The concert will feature a suite of holiday favorites, together with music by J. S. Bach and selections from Handel’s “Messiah.” And this year, the New Jersey Youth Chorus will perform, too.
“Dr. Brandau has been working on new arrangements for some of the traditional pieces,” Monmouth Civic Chorus Marketing Director, James Scavone, said, “and that makes it fun and exciting for the singers and the audience.”
He also commented on the addition of the children’s chorus this year. “The New Jersey Youth Chorus will sing on the suite with our group and also do parts on their own. It’s a great new collaboration.”
Monmouth Civic Chorus, as their website and Facebook page explain, is a “volunteer community of singers dedicated to artistic excellence.” And Scavone emphasized the two key aspects of this statement.
“We are a community chorus that performs at a professional level,” he said.
Both he and I agree that the perception of a community chorus is sometimes inaccurate. People tend to think a group must have a hefty staff and a deep-pocket budget to produce high-quality work. But the MCC dispels those myths.
“We have been fortunate over the past 30+ years,” Scavone said, “to have extraordinary artistic directors.”
For example, when the MCC was asked to perform at Carnegie Hall in November with the prestigious Canterbury Choral Society, the invitation came by way of their current artistic director.
“Dr. Brandau (who has been Artistic Director since the 2012-13 season) has an incredible reputation,” Scavone told me. “The people from Canterbury Chorus knew of his excellent work and reached out.”
MCC is also recognized for its creativity and originality in programming. And that, too, is not by chance. “Our previous Artistic Director, Mark Shapiro, was very innovative; it was a specialty of his,” Scavone said. “Dr. Brandau has certainly continued on that path.”
In fact, in 2008, MCC won The Chorus America/ASCAP Alice Parker Award for Innovative Programming for its world premiere of Jorge Martin’s “Stronger Than Darkness,” a Cuban-American opera in concert. The award was established in 2003 to recognize a chorus for programming recently composed music that expands the mission of the chorus and challenges the audience in new ways.
In accepting the award, Shapiro remarked, “This award acknowledges the passion and commitment of MCC’s dedicated singers, hard-working board, loyal supporters, and fearless audience.”
So, let’s talk about some of those people.
“My professional background is in nonprofit and arts management,” Scavone said, “and this organization – run strictly by volunteers – is quite unique.”
Not only do MCC volunteers handle nearly every role (only the job of Artistic Director is a paid position) but many – if not most – are singers in the chorus. (When you have a moment, I encourage you to find out more about them by visiting the MCC website and clicking on the Member Profiles page. I think you will be surprised not only by the level, but also the longevity, of many members’ involvement.)
And, last, but hardly least, is the audience Shapiro referred to.
MCC is based in Red Bank, and, for a while, the audience was also somewhat Red Bank-centric. But things are changing.
“Now we get people from surrounding counties,” Scavone said, “and we are reaching out further.”
Scavone cites a few reasons for this. One is that the singers who are coming to the chorus are trending younger.
“One thing that is heartening,” he said, “is that we seem to be attracting a somewhat younger crowd to our auditions.”
Scavone also points to a greater awareness of local and regional arts organizations. In our conversation, I mentioned that MCC has a quality website and a strong social media presence, both factors in more widespread visibility.
And, of course, concerts at Carnegie Hall and other national and international appearances don’t hurt.
Finally, I asked why the Christmas concert is held at the Count Basie Theater, a grand, landmark building that can hold more than 1,500 people.
“For as long as I have been with the chorus, almost 15 years now, and for long before that, the Christmas concert has been held there,” he said. “It is a remarkable venue and one of the few in Monmouth County large enough to accommodate the chorus, an orchestra and the audience.”
“Plus,” he added, “it’s a holiday tradition.”