In Celebration

By combining various elements of story and song and drawing on the wealth of spiritual and religious diversity in America, the Voices Chorale ‘Festival of Lessons and Carols’ offers a broad program.

By: Amy Brummer
   In 1918, the Bishop of Truro conducted a Christmas service of readings with musical accompaniment at King’s College in Cambridge, England. The Festival of Lessons and Carols included traditional readings from texts such as Genesis, Isaiah and Luke, interspersed with religious classical music.
   As interpreted by Voices Chorale, based in Pennington, the program expands its traditional framework to include a broader cultural spectrum, including Judaic and Russian works, Western classical music and American folk spirituals.

The 60-member Voices Chorale, directed by Lynn Ransom, will present its Festival of Lessons and Carols in Newtown, Pa., Dec. 20 and in Princeton Dec. 21.

   Voices Chorale is a 60-member chorus comprised of professional and amateur singers. Founded by Lynne Ransom in 1987, the group has aimed to bring a unique mix of classical music spanning the centuries from Renaissance to contemporary works. Voices will present its own Festival of Lessons and Carols in Newtown, Pa., Dec. 20 and in Princeton Dec. 21.
   "The concept of this concert is that it is ecumenical enough not to feel like a church service," says Dr. Ransom, who holds a doctorate in conducting. "(It) brings in a few elements that are part of the Jewish tradition and the Christian tradition to make it feel like a celebration of the holidays."
   The program is set up to move the audience through a dramatic evolution of reflection and celebration, starting with candlelight and an a cappella soloist singing the John Jacob Niles spiritual, "I Wonder as I Wander." It progresses to the more celebratory works of Handel, Bach, Giovanni Legrenzi and Richard Yardumian, a composer from Newtown who worked in the mid-20th century. Then the mood shifts with a more somber piece by Alexandre Gretchaninoff, ending with "Silent Night," the lighting of candles and the ringing of bells.
   "We’ve remained true to our mission of performing new music and also performing music that is not as well known," Dr. Ransom says. "We look to find new pieces like the Gretchaninoff, the Russian piece, or Legrenzi, an Italian baroque composer contemporary with Bach and Handel, that hasn’t been done but is deserving of a good performance."
   In addition to the readings that will tell the story of Christmas, Ron O’Reilly, a professional storyteller and member of Voices, will create a story especially for this performance.
   "What’s important to me is to tell stories about the human condition," Mr. O’Reilly says. "This season has a lot to do with the elements of darkness, despair and the experience of hope. I try to tell stories that represent traditions or cultures other than Judeo-Christian stories. I suggest that other stories, other cultures, other people have the same virtues, dreams and visions and their own version of wisdom. The stories I tell express that hopes, heart and wishes are common to all of us."
   The size of the venue can also be a factor in making a connection with the audience, says soloist Rochelle Ellis. A nationally acclaimed soprano, Ms. Ellis has performed a repertoire ranging from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with the Houston Symphony to fully staged operatic productions of Porgy and Bess with the New York City Opera. Returning for her third performance with Voices in the Festival of Lessons and Carols, Ms. Ellis, a West Windsor resident, is aware of the differences between performing on a small stage instead of a large theater.
   "It is so intimate with the audience," Ms. Ellis says. "The big difference between doing an opera and concert work is that (in a concert) you don’t have anything between you. You are not a different character with everything contained on stage. My whole communication is between myself and the audience. I have found that it is very rewarding for me as a singer and I feel the audience responds very much to the pacing and the mood and what’s happening on the stage. They’re right there and you can see it."
   By combining these elements of story and song and drawing on the wealth of spiritual and religious diversity in America, the Voices Chorale Festival of Lessons and Carols offers a broad program. Through careful pacing, the concert provides an opportunity for listeners to become involved in the nuances and evolution of the atmosphere.
   "People have time to settle down and listen to the flow of the music and the reverie that it creates," Dr. Ransom says. "It gives them a time to reflect."
Voices Chorale will perform the Festival of Lessons and Carols at The Church of St. Andrew, 81 Swamp Road, Newtown, Pa., Dec. 20, 8 p.m., freewill donation; and at Princeton United Methodist Church, 7 Vandeventer St., Princeton, Dec., 21, 8 p.m., $18, $15 seniors/students, $8 under age 12, $42 family pass (3-6 persons). For information, call (609) 637-9383. On the Web: