WEST HARTFORD — On Sunday, Dec. 13, at 3 p.m., the festive sounds of “A Candlelight Festival of Lessons and Carols” will emanate from John’s Episcopal Church in West Hartford, continuing a tradition of many years’ standing. This year, due to pandemic restrictions, however, the service will be livestreamed only via the church’s YouTube channel, at https://youtu.be/np2NhwJRBIM according to an email from organizers.
“Those who have attended this heart-warming service each year treasure the experience as a welcome respite from the usual December stresses of shopping and other holiday preparations,” said Scott Lamlein, director of music and organist for St. John’s and artistic director of Music at the Red Door, the music series at St. John’s. “This year, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, many people may also be burdened by illness, grief, worry, unemployment, and the loneliness of isolation. The Lessons and Carols service from St. John’s will provide an hour of inspiration and reassurance in a world of worry.”
The program of choral and organ music, vocal solos, and holiday readings is modeled on an Advent service that was first offered in Truro, England, in 1880 (where it has since been performed without interruption) and later made famous by the annual worldwide radio broadcast of a Lessons and Carols service at King’s College Cambridge, whence it has been broadcast each year since 1918.
The Dec. 13 live-stream only event from St. John’s features choral music from the St. John’s Adult and Youth Choirs and the St. John’s Schola, with organists Ted Babbitt and Scott Lamlein, who is also choirmaster.
The Lessons and Carols service, which opens and closes with organ solos, alternates seasonal readings with music that reflects on those texts. Within that traditional framework, listeners will see — and hear — some innovations made necessary by the ongoing pandemic.
Because singing is known to increase risk of transmission, the St. John’s choirs have not rehearsed together in person since March, but have been working together online to prepare the choral selections for the services.
“Each of the choral anthems is prepared in advance and recorded for inclusion in the livestream,” Lamlein explained. “For each selection, I create a master track to which each singer can listen at home, and we rehearse together online via Zoom. Then each singer records his or her individual part, and I mix the audio and video tracks to prepare the final ensemble version.”
The choral anthems will feature various combinations of singers from the St. John’s Youth and Adult Choirs and the St. John’s Schola, a select group of adult singers, as well as with all the singers together.
“The ‘video choir’ process can be somewhat challenging — and a little intimidating — for choral singers who suddenly find themselves called upon to record their own parts,” said Lamlein. “Not only have they had to master the technology, but they’ve had to muster the confidence to sing their own parts alone while imagining how their voices will contribute to the ensemble sound. In other words, they have to be soloist and chorister at the same time.”
The sung portion of the service opens with the hymn made famous by the King’s College service, “Once in Royal David’s City” and closes with “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” (An online program with texts will be available so that listeners may sing along.) Choral music includes selections by Robles, Joubert, Luboff, Conte, Berlioz, Friedell, Edwards, as well as a setting of “In the Bleak Midwinter” by West Hartford composer Rob Hugh. Soloists include Cate Emerick, Brendon Gallagher, and Erica Maas Shippee.
Organ music played on the 3,271-pipe Austin organ at St. John’s includes the “Berceuse sur le nom de Swann” (“Lullaby on the name Swann” ) by George Baker, performed by Scott Lamlein, and the “Carillon de Longpont” by Louis Vierne, performed by St. John’s organ scholar Ted Babbitt.
The organ scholar program at St. John’s immerses a young organist into the work of a church musician. Now in his third year as organ scholar, Ted Babbitt has been a member of the St. John’s music program since he joined the treble choir at age seven. Ted, who is now a junior in high school, sings in the adult choir and assists Lamlein with organ-playing for services. He plans to attend college to study music education and organ.
“An organ scholar’s training begins at the organ console every Sunday morning to observe the organist, turn pages, and press the occasional piston that controls the stops of the organ,” explained Lamlein. “Ted gradually learned to improvise during communion and play hymns, and after two years he developed the skills to land a great job as organist for a summer-only church in Norfolk. And at St. John’s, he has been recording most of the accompaniments for the virtual choir anthems heard during our online Sunday services.”
The livestreamed Lessons and Carols service offers opportunities to experience this traditional holiday event in new ways.
“Though we can’t gather in person in the beautiful sanctuary at St. John’s for this event, it’s possible to experience the service together with friends and family,” added Lamlein. “We invite and encourage friends and families to gather virtually for this service, with individuals listening via our YouTube channel while connecting via Zoom, phone, or Skype to sing together, listen and reflect on the readings, and enjoy the inspiration of great choral and organ music.”
The livestream begins at 3 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 13 at https://youtu.be/np2NhwJRBIM.
More information about the event is available at https://bit.ly/3fec793.
Each year, Music at the Red Door presents a full series of musical and cultural events, including the Pipes Alive! organ series; choral and chamber music concerts; guest choirs and ensembles; and special events such as the annual Lessons and Carols service and an annual choral concert, Choral Music for the Soul. Visit www.reddoormusic.org for event details and more information, and to subscribe to the free newsletter.
Admission is free to all events presented by Music at the Red Door; free-will donations in any amount are accepted at www.reddoormusic.org/donate.