The St. Charles Singers, led by founder and Music Director Jeffrey Hunt, will present the 2020 "Candlelight Carols" program as a free-to-view webcast Sunday, Dec. 6. Recorded in Wheaton, the 45-minute concert will stream at 4, 7 and 9 p.m.
The viewing link will be posted on the choir’s website at stcharlessingers.com.
Thirty-five singers from the mixed-voice ensemble, hailed by American Record Guide as “a national treasure,” took part in the video recording, which features 13 seasonal songs by composers and arrangers from the Renaissance to the 20th century, most sung a cappella.
The professional chamber choir’s 37th annual holiday program was recorded Nov. 8 at St. Michael Catholic Church in Wheaton, without an audience and in accordance with public health regulations and safety precautions, Hunt says.
The COVID-19 situation “has been such a huge loss to the singing world,” he says, because of concerns over airborne spread of the virus.
“All the singers expressed immense gratitude for the opportunity to perform in some way and to be with each other again,” the choirmaster says.
The St. Charles Singers open their concert with a work they’ve never performed before: French Renaissance composer Josquin des Prez’s “Gaude Virgo, Mater Christi” (Rejoice, virgin mother of Christ). Hunt calls it a “gorgeous motet from the early 16th century that works extremely well with a modern choir of male and female voices.”
He also notes that in 2021, the early-music world will commemorate the 500th anniversary of the composer’s death.
Hunt’s program pairs two carols about gift giving. Lloyd and Debby Pfautsch’s arrangement of the Spanish carol “The Gift Carol” opens with the words, “What shall I bring to the Babe in the manger?”
Katherine Kennicott Davis wrote “The Little Drummer Boy,” originally known as “Carol of the Drum,” in 1941. The story of a poor child who plays his drum as his gift to the infant Jesus is performed in John McCarthy’s arrangement. Hunt says he first fell in love with this version on a King’s Singers recording.
Among newer carols is Will Todd’s “My Lord Has Come,” included in Oxford University Press’s prestigious 2011 anthology “Carols for Choirs 5.” In its captivating opening measures, tenors and basses quietly chant the syllable “ah” under an expressive melody sung by the sopranos and altos.
Composer Alfred Burt’s upbeat, celebratory “We’ll dress the house,” with words by Wilha Hutson, evokes colorful Christmas decorations and holiday excitement.
Prolific American choral composer and arranger Morton J. Luvaas was a revered music professor at Pennsylvania’s Allegheny College and director of the Allegheny Singers. The St. Charles Singers perform Luvaas’s “While Stars Their Vigil Keep,” which they also recorded for their 2011 holiday album, “From Out of a Wood: Live at Christmas.”
The choir sings 19th-century French composer Adolphe Adam’s “Cantique de Noël” in its original French, with piano accompaniment. It’s the same melody heard in the later, differently worded, English-language carol “O Holy Night.”
The harp accompanies two carols about mother and child: Benjamin Britten’s “This Little Babe,” an intense work about good versus evil in which the voices create harp-like effects; and Patrick Hadley’s arrangement of “I Sing of a Maiden,” a traditional anthem with words dating from the 16th century.
Erik Eenvald’s “Stars” is a 1977 setting of an atmospheric Sara Teasdale poem evoking the smell of a pine forest and images of a starry sky. Hunt says he loves the way the piece captures the sense of a solitary individual reflecting on the season’s natural and spiritual wonders.
Carolyn Jennings’ “O Come Little Children” is her arrangement of a German Christmas carol set to a melody by classical-era composer Johann Abraham Peter Schultz.
Hunt and the St. Charles Singers close the program with two works by John Rutter, the illustrious contemporary English composer and choirmaster with whom the St. Charles Singers have formed a close bond over the decades. Rutter himself has guest-conducted the ensemble on several occasions in Chicago and the western suburbs.
They sing Rutter’s arrangement of “Away in a Manager” and his original composition “Candlelight Carol” for soprano, alto, tenor, baritone and bass voices, performed here with piano accompaniment.
For the "Candlelight Carols" concert recording, choristers wore special masks designed to facilitate breathing, voice projection and vocal clarity. Temperatures were checked as they entered the church.
The concert was recorded in 30-minute takes. Singers would leave the building for 30-minute breaks while the air in the sanctuary was recirculated.
Most songs were performed by a rotating ensemble of 12 singers. A few were sung by a 25-voice choir.
Among the challenges of masked singing, Hunt says, was the need to convey moods and emotions entirely through the voice because facial expressions were largely hidden.
For a sense of immediacy, Hunt says he encouraged the singers to imagine themselves performing live in person before a large audience instead of in a closed recording session.
The concert was recorded at St. Michael Church, rather than the choir’s home base of Baker Memorial United Methodist Church, St. Charles, because St. Michael’s layout accommodated the singers’ social-distancing needs, and its ventilation system met requirements.
“I was overwhelmed with emotion at the conclusion of the recording session,” Hunt says. “I’m profoundly thankful for the singers who accepted the challenge of performing under such unusual conditions, and to our board members and others whose support made this project possible.”
Choristers by hometown
St. Charles Singers ensemble members performing in the "Candlelight Carols" webcast include sopranos: Jeanne Fornari, Batavia; Ingrid Burrichter, Chicago; Marybeth Kurnat, DeKalb; Jessica Palmisano, Elburn; Laura Johnson, Hanover Park; Cynthia Miller Spiegel, La Fox; Jennifer Gingrich and Meredith Taylor Mollica, Naperville; AnDréa James, St. Charles; and Karen Lukose, Winfield.
Alto voices are Christina Collins, Arlington Heights; Sarah Underhill, Aurora; Margaret Fox and Valerie Heinkel-Bollero, Batavia; Nicole Tolentino, Carol Stream; Allison Deady, Chicago; Julie Popplewell, North Aurora; Jennifer Hunt, St. Charles; Karen Archbold, Wheaton; and Debra Wilder, Wheeling.
The tenor section includes Robert Campbell, DeKalb; Bryan Kunstman and Bradley Staker, Elburn; Stephen Mollica, Naperville; Gregor King, North Aurora; Nicholas Falco, Schaumburg; and David Hunt, Wayne.
Basses are Michael Thoms, Aurora; Brandon Fox, Batavia; Douglas Peters, Chicago; Nathan Coon, Crystal Lake; David Hartley, Lake in the Hills; Michael Popplewell, North Aurora; Antonio Quaranta, River Grove; and Drayton Eggleson, Sycamore.
Instrumental accompanists are harpist Erin Freund, Geneva, and pianist Melanie Marr, West Chicago.
St. Charles Singers
Founded and directed by Jeffrey Hunt, the St. Charles Singers is a professional chamber choir dedicated to choral music in all its forms. The ensemble includes professional and professionally trained singers, choral directors and voice instructors, some of whom perform with other top-tier Chicago choirs
ClassicsToday.com has called the ensemble “one of North America’s outstanding choirs,” citing “charisma and top-notch musicianship” that “bring character and excitement to each piece.” Among the St. Charles Singers’ prominent guest conductors have been English composer John Rutter, founder of the Cambridge Singers; Philip Moore, composer and former music director at England’s York Minster cathedral; and Grammy Award-winning American choir director Craig Hella Johnson. The choir launched in St. Charles in 1984 as the Mostly Madrigal Singers.