Holding the Moment

College students connect with a 100-year-old ceremony.
Photo by Karin Strickland

One hundred years ago, to celebrate Christmas and the end of World War I, a ceremony of biblical readings and carols was held at King’s College in Cambridge, England. Since then, this Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols has been recreated annually, both in Cambridge and throughout the world. Brevard College will do so for the 20th time in early December. 

In Cambridge, all the parts are sung by boys and men, whereas the Brevard performance will feature a balance of women and men, ages 18 to 23. Dr. David Gresham, director of the Brevard College Concert Choir and Chamber Singers, talks to Bold Life about keeping hymns relevant for a diverse group of young performers.

What is the reward or thrill for an individual singing
in a large choir?

I think it’s a lot like playing with an orchestra. The thrill is to make a musical experience you can’t make as a solo artist. With a choir, when you join forces, you can make sounds you can’t make by yourself. 

What kinds of sounds?

When you listen to a violin solo, there is a little scratchy edge to it. But with a group of violinists, it’s a lush, rich, fuller sound. I feel the same way about a choir.

What are some of your unique challenges as director?

We have to practice things like how to walk and sing while holding a candle and not letting it blow out. Also how to hold the moment, which is more psychological. 

How so?

They are college students — they are excited about things. Sometimes they have to be reminded of what [the concert] means. Some audience members say this event brings them into what they consider the real spirit of the season.

How does mindset influence performance?

I think it’s a level of authenticity. Otherwise it doesn’t connect as well with the audience. Our challenge is to find our connection to each piece.

The concert has a religious aspect, but are there singers who don’t connect to the music that way?

I have been pleased with how much singers of other faiths or even no faith connect into it. It’s a beautiful ceremony. Singers and audiences alike respond to the ceremony’s move from darkness to light. 

Can you describe that move?

We perform at a time when the physical light we experience from the sun is less, and I think we all gravitate toward the images of light found in the readings and carols. We close the evening by candlelight with “Stille Nacht” [Silent Night], in the original language. It also acts as a metaphorical move, pointing away from despair toward hope ­— something we could all use.

The 20th annual Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols will be performed by the Brevard College Concert Choir and Chamber Singers on Saturday, Dec. 8, in The Porter Center for Performing Arts at 7:30 pm. Free. For more information, call 828-884-8330 or see brevard.edu.

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