John Whittum and Charlie Bates: ‘This Shining Night’ glows at St. Paul’s

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— The cold snow cover sparkled as we entered St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on Saturday to hear our finest Christmas choir concert by the Steamboat Chamber Singers. Despite the cloud cover, it was indeed a “shining” night. The “This Shining Night” theme came from a poem by James Agee, who is best known as the script writer for John Huston’s film “The African Queen.” The poem printed on the back of the concert program begins:

“Sure as this shining night

Of star made shadows round,

Kindness must watch for me

This side the ground.”

The first selection, “God is With Us,” by John Tavenor, sung solo flawlessly by Brian Harrington, established the theme. Director Marie Carmichael then welcomed the audience as the choir filed in.

The second selection was “Lux Aurumque” by contemporary American composer Eric Whit­acre. This is part of Whit­acre’s “Wind Symphony,” with words from a poem by Edward Esch. Whitacre had poet Charles Anthony Silvestri translate the work into Latin. The libretto is as beautiful as it is simple:

“Light,

warm and heavy as pure gold

and the angels sing softly

to the newborn babe.”

We then heard “Three Mystical Carols” by Conrad Susa. Carols are songs of joy, as of a chorus of birds, and this describes these short pieces. They were followed by “Noel! Noel!” a French carol from “Les Noels Bressan,” arranged by Mack Wilberg. It was a jolly lifting piece with piano solos.

After “Alleluya, a New Work is Come on Hand,” with 15th century words, by Peter Wishart, we were treated to a harp carol played and arranged by Teri Rose. Except for the prelude, it is her rendition of “Greensleeves,” an ever-welcome tune.

After a brief intermission, choir members returned in Renaissance attire for “Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day,” by English composer John Gardner. This hymn progresses through the story of Jesus as told in his own voice. His life is repeatedly characterized as a dance. Four lines read:

“Then was I born of a virgin pure

Of her I took fleshly substance

Thus was I knit to man’s nature

To call my true love to my dance.”

Next was “The Holly and The Ivy,” a traditional English carol, arranged by H. Walford Daview, and then “In Time of Softest Snow,” a very nice comforting piece by John Carter. Then we heard the “Shepherd’s Pipe Carol” by John Rutter, a happy piece in which the alto voices are backed by the choir at a lower register.

“Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane, arranged by Peter Gritton, was cheery and light. The more substantial “Sure On This Shining Night” by James Agee and Morten Lauridsen followed. The beautiful refrain keeps coming back.

“Still, Still Night” by Joseph Mohr and Franz Gruber, arranged by Jackson Berkey, is a splendid version of “Silent Night.” The choir was accompanied by a harp.

Last, we were wished a Merry Christmas with John Rutter’s arrangement of the traditional English carol, “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” sung by this 20-voice expert choir group, the finest in the valley.

After the concert, audience and performers retired to the church’s spacious fellowship hall to overindulge, as is the tradition, in a remarkable variety of pastries prepared by master chef Nancy Kramer, who also sang alto. This night’s performance was the perfect Christmas concert to revitalize us with our core Western civilization mythos.

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