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A Joyful Community Celebration to “Sing” in the Holiday Season

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The combined chorus sings “Cantique de Noel” in a final performance

December can be busy, stressful, and depressing. With school and work, secret shopping, and darker days, it’s sometimes hard to find the joy in the first month of winter, but when you take a step back to listen, you might just hear the holiday joy you’re searching for. Maybe even in your own school. 

On December 7, promptly at 7 pm, the Ninth Grade Choir, Glee Choir, Bel Canto Concert Choir, Honors Chamber Choir, and Jubilee Choir welcomed community members to their annual winter concert, full of holiday spirit and winter magic. The concert, open to all community members, featured an audience with flushed faces from the cold, warmed by anticipation. 

Ms. Emma DiLauro conducts the Honors Chamber Choir

Senior Hannah Florendo started off the concert with a solo singing of “The Star Spangled Banner.” Mr. John Hellyer, director, and WOHS Choir teacher introduced the Ninth Grade Choir, which numbered a small 18 students, the empty spots in the risers left by students home sick with colds. 

Despite their reduced numbers, the choir managed to bring upbeat holiday energy to their five-song selection, which included “Fly Me to the Moon” by Bart Howard, “Never Enough” from The Greatest Showman, and “Siyahamba,” a traditional Zulu song that becomes a popular hymn in North American Churches in the 1990s. The song title translates to “We are marching in the light of God,” representative of the togetherness visible in the Choir’s performance. At one point, a baby erupted into loud gurgles, squeezing out slight smiles from the freshmen performers, who soon recovered. 

In their third piece, “To Make You Feel My Love” by Bob Dylan, Ms. Emma DiLauro, a Montclair State University student teacher, entered the stage to guest conduct the song. Recently graduated from Montclair State University, DiLauro has been a student teacher of the choir classes at the high school this past semester. Mr. Hellyer switched places with DiLauro, taking a choir book into the risers. The two switched places again in the next song, this time DiLauro singing in front of the risers. Although I hadn’t met DiLauro, I could feel the love from all of her students, and I smiled seeing Mr. Hellyer singing with his students, a look of pride on his face. 

The Bel Canto Concert Choir was up next, directed by Mr. David Rhone, the choir lived up to its Italian name, “beautiful singing.” The choir sang four songs; their third piece, the real star of the show, “Mary, Did You Know” by J. Mantronik and D. Billing, was sung in parts by five soloists, E’Majynn Bonilla, Jordeann Munroe, Jasmine Spencer, Sherrie Moussa, and David Johnson. Each soloist brought their own style and twist to the classic carol, incorporating a mix of hip-hop-like beats, jazzy undertones, and strong, powerful singing. I was pleasantly surprised by the versatility of the Choir, and I was impressed to see the talent of familiar faces, with each high note, I became more enthralled and was left wanting more from the group.

Mr. David Rhone and Mr. Hellyer came together after the Bel Canto Choir finished their last song to co-direct a collaborative piece performed by the Concert Choir and the Ninth Grade Chorus. The song “African Noel”, is a cheerful carol and the perfect sendoff of the first two Choruses. The audience’s clapping on beat soon became applause as the two choruses exited the stage to make way for the Honors Chamber Choir. 

The select choir sang four pieces, from a Hebrew folk song to traditional spirituals; the second, however, “The Ballad of the Brown King ” was the set’s centerpiece. Premiered in 1954, the Ballad was composed by Margaret Bonds and written in tandem with the similarly renowned Langston Hughes. The nine-movement cantata was an ode to the African king Balthazar and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, a Christmas story inspired by the collaborator’s lives in the Harlem Renaissance and a warm embrace of black culture and storytelling. Mr. Hellyer first heard the arrangement on the radio; his husband had run into the house after hearing it on WQXR, alerting him of the beautiful choral arrangement that was currently playing. Mr. Hellyer fell in love with the piece immediately, and so did I. 

The Chamber Choir sang movements one, three, eight, and nine, respectively. The audience was asked to hold their applause between movements, yet I could hear the auditorium holding their breath as well in an attempt to preserve the passionate reverberation left from the last notes. 

A funky yet smooth transition sent the Chamber Choir on their way and welcomed the Glee Choir, who danced onto the stage singing Rent’s “Seasons of Love ”. With a flourish, a disco ball was lowered from the ceiling onstage while the chorus swayed, and the audience clapped, “Don’t Stop Me Now” was sung with similar exuberance. The Chorus didn’t, in fact, stop then, and all at once, the audience took a trip to New York City. Joshua Elgin, as Aaron Burr, introduced “The Schuyler Sisters,” better known as the Pereira sisters. The triplets, Vicki, Lucia, and Sofia Pereira, took the stage as Angelica and Eliza (and Peggy), singing every line from the famed Hamilton number with Broadway conviction. 

The Glee Choir performs at the winter concert

As the Glee Choir filed off stage, the audience shifted in their seats, excited for the final choir: Jubilee. The Jubilee Choir didn’t miss a beat, clapping and skipping onto stage. Directed by Ms. Michelle Brown, the choir sang just three songs. Although one of the shortest sets of the evening, Jubilee sang as if their voices embodied all the joy of the evening they rocked out to a choral adaptation of “Lord, Your Holy Ballin” by Kanye West and invited the audience to clap to the beat of “Hosanna” by Kirk Franklin, one singer, clad in a suit and fedora led the choir with shouts of “What’s his name!?” and “We praise you!” as Jubilee dancers added an extra level of wonder to the show; a performance best construed as a celebration. 

Just when I thought the concert had concluded, Mr. Hellyer returned to the stage introducing a “new tradition” of the chorus program’s Winter Concert: a joint performance of “Cantique de Noël” (“Oh Holy Night”) Growing up, Mr. Hellyer remembers singing the classic with his family every Christmas, a treasured memory he wished to relive with his West Orange chorus family. Mr. Hellyer then invited all choirs to sing in the finale, the first time he had heard the choir sing his beloved carol, and hopefully not the last. 

In a world where the word synthetic is the top ingredient in the food we eat and the clothes we buy, this concert was a refreshing experience, raw and un-synthesized. All music, from accompaniments to transitions, was performed live, giving the concert extra flavor and meaning. Each piece in the concert was cohesive, and although the Glee’s Broadway numbers were different from the spirituals and carols that made up most of the concert, they matched the spirited atmosphere of the evening.  I walked out that night with a smile on my face, a sense of renewed holiday nostalgia, and a bit more excitement for December. 

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