Singing Noel

For some people, the holiday season starts with store sales the morning after Thanksgiving.  Others don’t feel the mood until they get their first Christmas card, open house invitation or fruitcake.

For me, the holidays don’t start until I hear the first notes of Staples’ Candlelight Concert.

That happens this Friday (7 p.m.) and Saturday (7 and 9:30 p.m.).  If you’ve ever been to one — or every one, since the 1st performance way back in 1940 — you know the magic of this music.  If you’ve never gone, you’ve missed one of Westport’s truly great traditions.

Candlelight is timeless. These Orphenians are from 1979. They could easily be from 2009.

It’s not just the combined talents and power of the choir, chorus, chorale, symphonic orchestra, symphonic band and sophomore band.

It’s not the hauntingly mesmerizing “Sing We Noel” processional — an obscure tune that generations of Candlelight musicians have made their own.

It’s not the happily goofy production number, or the sight of scores of alumni joining hundreds of current Staples students for a rousing “Hallelujah Chorus” at the final Saturday performance.

It’s all that taken together — an hour and a half of beautiful, heartfelt music — and the fact that, for nearly 7 seven decades, the Candlelight Concert has been Westport’s own.

Across America, schools have grappled with the concept of a “Christmas concert.”  They’ve added Hanukkah songs and Kwanzaa tunes, or scrapped everything in favor of “Winter Wonderland” and “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.”  Some have done away with the event altogether.

Certainly, Staples has adapted.  George Weigle and John Hanulik took what John Ohanian started, and added Hanukkah to the mix.  Adele Valovich has broadened the orchestral repertoire, while current choral director Alice Lipson has gone far afield to include traditional African and Asian music.

Significantly, she is a convert to Judaism — and her husband and daughter are both rabbis.

The Candlelight Concert still retains, and showcases, music born of the Christian religion. It is an important part of our cultural canon — and it is beautiful.

Alice, Adele and band leader Nick Mariconda teach their young musicians how to perform Christmas music (and Hanukkah music, and other songs that celebrate life and family and hope and goodness).  Just as importantly, they teach them where that music came from; what it means, and why we sing it, play it and appreciate it.

That’s why, year after year, thousands of Westporters flock to Staples’ Candlelight Concert.  The audience — Christians, Jews, Buddhists, agnostics and atheists — enjoys every moment.  No one forces them to come; no one demands that they stand for the “Hallelujah Chorus.”

As Alice Lipson is fond of saying:  “It’s about the music.”

And Westport gets it.

(For the 1st time ever, this year’s Candlelight Concert will be simulcast.  Saturday’s 9:30 p.m. performance is available on radio [WWPT-FM 90.3]; television [Cablevision Channel 78], and the internet [Staples Television Network www.stn78.com.  For more information, call the Staples music department:  203-341-1307.]

10 responses to “Singing Noel

  1. Deirdre O'Farrelly

    It is so beautiful and a wonderful gift from the students and teachers, they practice hard to make it a great performance, and once again we see what our kids are learning at school, I will think of this as I go to my 5th graders orchestra concert tonight, that’s where it starts – in Elementary school.
    Thanks Dan for highlighting the Candlelight Concert, not all towns get this!
    Deirdre

    It must be too early – I’m seeing snow falling across this screen????

  2. Dan,
    Thanks for the memories. Singing in the Candlelight Concert and the Orphenians under Dr. Weigle was a real highlight of my education.

    The photo is actually of the Choir, not the Orphenians which didn’t sing in the Candlelight concert back then. I also think the photo would have been from the 1979 or 1980 concert, judging from the people in the photo.

    And thanks for adding the snow. Nice touch.

  3. Kim Crowther Manning

    Since my family moved to Westport in 1971 the Candlelight Concert has been the highlight of the Christmas season for me every year since. Both my sister and I were members of the Staples Choir back in the George Weigle era and we both still can sing every word of every song we ever learned in that choral room (as undoubtedly most choir alumni can). Even during the years when my kids were too young to take to the concert and appreciate it, I would listen to re-broadcasts of it on WWPT. One particularly hectic pre-Christmas morning about eight years ago, I took a trip to a maddeningly crowded Stop and Shop. My mood was not exactly festive while in the store. When I finally got in my car to head home I was flipping the dial on the radio and stumbled upon the familiar sound of choir voices singing “Welcome Yule”. I instantly burst into tears (in a good way!) and ended up sitting in the car in the S&S parking lot for most of the broadcast just quietly listening. What a turning point in my spirit!! Now my daughter is fortunate enough to be part of the choir, and seeing her in her robe as the choir processes down the aisles with their candles in hand at this year’s Candlelight Concert is going to put me over the edge emotionally!! And I CAN’T WAIT! What a wonderful gift this concert is to our town. Thank you to all who work so hard to put it together year after year after year.

    P.S. Just FYI, the photo is of some of the choir members just before heading on stage at the Candlelight Concert in December, 1979.

  4. Simply said, “It’s great to be in Westport and a big thank you to Staples students and all involved for this amazing annual gift. What a tradition!!”

  5. Alas, I won’t have the pleasure–and privilege—of being on stage again this year to sing “Hallelujah Chorus,” or to sit in the audience tearing up as the current crop of choir members processes down the aisles singing “Sing We Noel.”

    (I’m so sentimental about all this that I’m tearing up as I write the words.)

    Because of a family scheduling conflict, our annual get-together is the same night. But you can bet that I’ll be there in spirit. During my tumultuous adolescence, choir (’70-’72) was my calm harbor, Mr. Weigel, the capable and kind captain of my ship.

    Forgive me for being corny, but, as I said, to this day I get emotional about the choir thing. I’m not sure I would have made it through those years without it–or at least made it through as well as I did.

    Oh…and does anyone out there remember singing “My Lord What a Morning?” at the beginning of almost every choir class? I can hear the tune and words in my head even now.

  6. Yes Kim Crowther Manning, I spoke to Suzanne Sherman Propp tonight and asked her to check vintage of photo too…am sure it is my SHS class of 79….I too LOVE this concert and feel confident that we can thank all levels of music in the Westport schools–Kindergarten on up–to help in SHS’s presentation of this marvelous tradition!

  7. Kim Crowther Manning

    Anne, I was class of ’80 and this photo is in my 1980 yearbook. It’s possible the photo was taken during my junior year (which means it would have been taken in December of 1978) but I think it was taken at the December, 1979 concert (the December of 1980’s graduating class).

    It seems all who have attended this concert, whether a current student, alumnus, relative, or just a person appreciative of beautiful music, have been touched by this moving holiday event. Prill, I’m with you on the tears!! Merry Christmas (Happy Hannukah, Happy Kwanzaa, etc.) to all, and to all a good night!

  8. Linda Gramatky Smith

    A friend in England (Staples grad) asked if the concert might be put on YouTube since it would be the middle of the night for her to listen to it in the U.K. Has anyone ever thought of doing this? What fun to let your wide readership know, Dan, if it ever arrives on YouTube.

  9. Of all my Staples memories, this is one of my top 5. I remember Weigle telling us we could not play with the candles while we waited to process, but sure enough in a nostril they went to light up a nose… and it was so cool. The other night I was twisting the light bulb on to light my battery-operated window candles for my upstairs windows, and got hit by an instant memory of being in those special concerts. Nothing like it will ever compare. Thanks for making it all come back, Dan, and for treating it with the respect it deserves. P.S. I recognize my stepsister, Pamela Hancock, in the picture.

  10. Pamela Hancock Kinsey

    Hi, Dan Woog. I have received so many comments about this picture (mostly from Family!) but it evokes such warm memories for me of my time in the four building while at Staples. I am now the Music Director of a small school system in Northern Maine, where I have introduced the ‘Production Number’ to many of my own students and am in the throws of my own holiday concert season–including my Elementary Christmas Musical today. I had the good fortune of singing under George Weigle in the late 70’s, but also under Alice Lipson as a new teacher at Long Lots Junior High. I have seen her a couple of times in her (not so new) role at Staples. Some of my favorite memories, and certainly the most vivid are of the times in the four building and the Candlelight concerts–Saturday night late, of course! Why can’t we play with the massive candy canes as though they were twirling batons? Sadly, I’ve not been to a performance in nearly 30 years, but this time of year always brings the memories right back. I’ve also introduced my church choir to ‘Sing we Noel’, and ‘Welcome Yule’–which I still know by heart. I am embarrassed to admit that I can not name all of the people in the picture, but I am in the middle in the back, to the left is Mitch Lapin and I believe Ellen Roth is in front on the left. I am also agree with Kim Crowther that the picture was taken in December 1979, before our 1980 graduation. Thanks so much for the fond memories, and get the word out if they ever broadcast on You Tube–it would be a great treat to see again, when I’m not so crazy with my own performances. Pamela Hancock Kinsey, Class of 1980.