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Music directors strive at this time of year to come up with Christmas programs that show the joy as well as the importance of the occasion.
By WAVENEY ANN MOORE
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 16, 2000
Following lakeside paths aglow with luminaria, students, faculty and staff gathered eagerly recently for the promised musical program to celebrate Christmas.
Inside Eckerd College's octagonal Griffin Chapel, hung with giant, colorful holiday banners, they listened as majestic bursts of trumpets and joyful chimes joined the rich voices of student and church choir members.
Mopping his brow at regular intervals, director Marion Smith adroitly switched attention from bell ringers to choir to orchestra.
The next day, he found time to reflect.
"I feel great about it," he said of the program, which combined the talents of performers from Eckerd College and First United Methodist Church.
"To see it all come together and having only one rehearsal with the orchestra. . . . I'm very elated for my students and my church choir that they can pull this all together like this. And I'm very happy that we can give this gift to our college community to usher in the holiday season," said Smith, an associate professor of music at Eckerd and director of music ministries at First United Methodist Church.
Smith, like many in charge of church music, began planning for the Christmas season months earlier. For this major Christian feast day, along with Easter, some church musicians have been known to devise elaborate productions requiring props and casts of hundreds. Others remain faithful to traditional services that simply demand the choice of festive hymns, with perhaps the addition of an extra flourish of trumpet or organ.
Rick Smith, director of music at First Presbyterian Church, usually begins preparing for Christmas in September. Smith said he uses the four Sundays of Advent, the season that precedes Christmas, to shepherd the congregation to the Dec. 24 Christian landmark.
"We try to reach a crescendo, so to speak, from the beginning of Advent, with the high of the season being the actual birth of Christ. Some people might say, "I want to sing O Come All Ye Faithful.' But if we did, we don't really adequately prepare the congregation for what, in my opinion, is the real meaning of Christmas. Or we could become like the mall or other shopping centers that have been playing Christmas music since Halloween," said Smith, who arrived in St. Petersburg a little more than a year ago from Dunwoody United Methodist Church in Atlanta.
Smith said that he makes a tiny concession each Sunday in Advent by adding a Christmas carol at the end of each service. When Christmas arrives, though, he tries to give traditional carols a distinctive flair with the introduction of special harmonization and hand bell accompaniment.
At Bethel Community Baptist Church this Christmas Eve, the congregation will be treated to a unique presentation of the old favorite, Joy to the World. Church musician Steve Wilson has created a new arrangement that will be sung by the church's mass choir.
"It's a contemporary rendition. It's upbeat. It has a trendy beat to it," said Wilson, 22, a graduate of Dixie Hollins High School.
"Contemporary gospel, that's how you'd describe it," he said.
The atmosphere will be different at St. Vincent's Episcopal Church, where organist and choir director Paul Schrader and his choir have been rehearsing Charles Gounod's Mass in C Major since September.
"We'll do it in both services," said Schrader, explaining that the choir will sing Gounod's Latin composition during the Gloria, Creed and other portions of St. Vincent's Christmas Eve service.
Schrader said he decided on Gounod's Mass because it fit into the traditional Episcopal service and did not require asking the congregation to arrive early or remain late for a special holiday program.
Choosing music for Christmas takes a lot of thought, he said.
"What I do, I look at my forces. We're a small church. I have to see who is going to be here at Christmas. In a small church, that's really important. You cannot whip out something fantastic and have only four people," said Schrader, whose Christmas choir is double that number.
Schrader, whose pride is St. Vincent's historic C.F. Durner mechanical action (tracker) pipe organ, said he tends to stick to classical music.
"There is a lot of modern music. There's Christian contemporary, and a lot of it is very easy and singable. However, it lacks enduring beauty. Something that's been around 100 years by a famous composer is going to be around 100 years from now. I want my choirs to be challenged, and I want my hearers, the worshipers, to be challenged. I want them to hear something of enduring quality, because it is the enduring God we worship."
What those sitting in the tiered pews of Eckerd College's Griffin Chapel heard Tuesday was a program of traditional, contemporary and gospel music performed by the combined church and college choir, bell ringers and 30-piece orchestra. The audience gave the performers and director a standing ovation.
The gospel-style arrangement of Joy to the World and Go Tell It on the Mountain was a particular favorite, enticing the audience of students, faculty and staff to tap their feet and clap their hands.
"I didn't expect it. I'm glad to see they got into it," said Marion Smith, who has been at Eckerd College for 14 years and First United Methodist for 10.
"This will be the second year that I have done this joint project," he said.
The evening's program, which also included an audience sing-along, featured the Christmas Cantata, Welcome to Our World, A Musical Celebration for Christmas, created by Claire Cloninger and Robert Sterling.
The goal of the work, interspersed with music and narration, is to guide members of the audience to a personal relationship with Christ, Smith said.
He said, "It is a very reflective work and causes us to look inward."
That is an important purpose of religious music, said Schrader, who added that he hopes the music the congregation hears at St. Vincent's Christmas Eve service will have that effect.
"At Christmas, we don't want to be sappy about the pretty little baby in a manger. We want to realize that this is the creator of the universe, who becomes one of us as humbly as possible," Schrader said.
"I hope to convey all of this. Otherwise, there would be no cause for me to be a church musician," he said. "I don't just want people to feel good, but to think good."