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.
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.]