Two of Westport’s favorite musicians — former Staples High School choral director Alice Lipson and drummer Drew McKeon — share a moment (and hair) at last night’s “Voices: A Concert for Unity.” The event at the Levitt Pavilion was a benefit for the Anti-Defamation League. Drew — who tours internationally with Michael Bolton — backed fellow Staples grad Alisan Porter at the concert.
Justin Paul and his songwriting partner, Benj Pasek, won Oscars tonight for “City of Stars,” the signature song from “La La Land.” The lyricists were honored for another song — “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” — from the same film. So they had 40% of the category locked down.
The 2003 Staples High School graduate used part of his acceptance speech to give a shout-out to the importance of the arts for young people.
“I was educated in public schools, where arts and culture are valued,” Paul — a product of the Westport school system — said. At a time of pressure from STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) state requirements, as well as the possible elimination of the National Endowment of the Arts, Paul made sure to thank all the teachers who helped nurture him.
He did not mention them by name, but former Staples High School choral director Alice Lipson and current Staples Players directors David Roth and Kerry Long were enormous influences. So were Coleytown Middle School director Ben Frimmer, and Kevin Connors of Music Theatre of Connecticut.
Justin Paul at the Oscars.
Paul and Pasek’s Oscar is the latest in a string of awards for the young duo. Earlier this year, “City of Stars” earned a Golden Globe.
And that comes on the heels of the success of Broadway’s “Dear Evan Hansen,” for which they wrote the music and lyrics.
Congratulations Justin, from all your fans in Westport — this “town of stars.”
Hundreds of alumni — from as far away as California, and as long ago as the 1950s — poured in to the Staples High School auditorium, for last night’s 75th anniversary Candlelight Concert.
At the end of the emotional evening, they poured onto the stage for Staples’ largest-ever “Hallelujah Chorus.” In addition to the traditional choral singers, several former orchestra members brought their instruments on stage too.
Candlelight has inspired musicians and concert-goers for three-quarters of a century. Here’s to the next 75!
Wellington Baumann holds his candle proudly, during the “Sing We Noel” processional. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)
The timeless “Sing We Noel” processional. (Photo/Kerry Long)
Among the programs on display was this. The 2nd verse of “Sing We Noel” is no longer sung — making it a lost verse from a carol that (except for Staples) is now quite obscure. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)
Dr. Robert Kwan accompanied the chorus and chorale. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)
Vocal director Luke Rosenberg asks his chorale to take a bow. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)
Adele Valovich’s orchestra wowed the audience with 2 selections from “Coppelia Ballet.” (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)
Nick Mariconda’s band added a big brass sound. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)
World music is an important part of Candlelight. The African song “Noel” included rhythmic clapping by the a cappella choir. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)
Don Rickenback’s original production number included this Santa “Grinch.” (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)
David Ohanian — son of Candlelight founder John Ohanian, and himself a world renowned French horn player — guest-conducted the orchestra for the “Hallelujah Chorus.” Former choral director Alice Lipson did the same honors with the vocalists. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)
Alumni joined current singers and orchestra members for a memorable “Hallelujah Chorus.” Click on or hover over this (and every) photo for the full effect. (Photo/Kerry Long)
A program from 1958 — just one thread in an unbroken string of memorable Candlelight Concerts, from 1940 to 2015. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)
Bonus feature: Joe Pucci’s video of the “Hallelujah Chorus:
There were many highlights at this weekend’s 75th anniversary Candlelight Concert
Scores of alumni traveled from across the country to honor the music that meant so much to them, so many years ago.
World renowned musician David Ohanian (son of Candlelight founder John Ohanian) and former choral director Alice Lipson guest-conducted the “Hallelujah Chorus.”
The fruits of hours of donated labor — searchable digitized recordings from as far back as 1953, scanned photos, souvenir programs — were on display in the lobby.
But one of the coolest surprises came right at the start of each show. The lights dimmed — and instead of the “Sing We Noel” processional, audiences were treated to a 9-minute video.
Created and produced by John Brandt — a 1961 Staples High School grad who sang for George Weigle back in the day — it honors the long legacy of Candlelight.
But it does much more than that too. In a series of clips and brief interviews, it offers a powerful argument for the importance of arts in education. Generations of Westport students have become better, stronger, richer people thanks to the school system’s music program. This stunning video is a tribute to the men and women — and the town — that gave them that gift.
In some towns, filling the position of choral teacher is a “meh” task.
Westport is not “some towns.”
When Justin Miller suddenly resigned as Staples’ instructor in August — after 2 years on the job — administrators were under the gun. They had to hire someone to oversee the high-profile position — teaching choral music, directing the choir and elite Orphenians, creating memorable music for the Candlelight Concert.
And they had to do it with the school year just a couple of weeks away.
Fortunately, the position was posted the same day Luke Rosenberg expanded his job search to Connecticut.
The Michigan native had moved to Brooklyn the month before. His spouse had gotten a graphic design job in New York. Neither had ever lived in the city — or knew much about the East Coast.
“I thought finding a job would be easy,” says Rosenberg, who had served as choral director in Caledonia, a Grand Rapids suburb with a great performing arts program and first-class facility he calls “upper middle class like Westport, but more spread out.”
But there was a hiring freeze in New York City, and leads proved fruitless. Eventually, a friend asked if Luke was looking in Connecticut.
“I had no idea it was so close,” he says.
He saw the just-posted position in Westport. He knew nothing about the town. But he did his research — including reading every page of the school district’s website. Photos of Staples reminded him of Caledonia High (click here to see why). When he interviewed on a Friday, he was prepared.
On Monday he met with superintendent of school Elliott Landon. (That’s proof of the importance Westport places on its choral director.) Almost immediately, he was offered the job.
Rosenberg flew back to Michigan to get his car. He drove east quickly, and saw his choral room for the first time.
There was music to order, a rehearsal schedule to arrange, a program to lead.
The Staples choral program has a rich history. In 2010, the elite group celebrated its 50th anniversary.
One of Rosenberg’s first acts was to add events. A fall “parlor concert” of choral music was added (it’s tonight in the auditorium, at 7:30). A new spring concert will include all the choirs.
Rosenberg also started learning about Staples’ music tradition. The choral program — including the 72-year-old Candlelight Concert, which flourished under George Weigle and his successor, Alice Lipson — are among the town jewels.
“Tradition is important,” Rosenberg says. “Especially in a close community, it’s important to keep links to the past.” Rest assured, Westport: the blue robes, “Welcome Yule” processional, production number — all will remain.
However, Rosenberg adds, it’s important for a new director to add his own spin.
He hopes to bring “a sense of Cambridge — like an old English candlelight ceremony” to the concert. “It’s beautiful,” he says. “You want to let the music wash over you.”
The Candlelight Concert is timeless. This shot, from 2011, was taken by Lynn U. Miller — a Staples choir member in the early 1970s.
Rosenberg plans to reintroduce downtown caroling. His singers will carol in New York too, on December 21. And he will add a performance, by Orphenians and the chamber orchestra, of Schubert’s “Mass in G.”
Rosenberg has already made a few changes. He’s opened Orphenians up to all grade levels. (It was previously restricted to juniors and seniors.)
“It’s an awesome ensemble,” he says of the elite traveling choir. “I want to bring in the best musicians — whatever their grade. The better the ensemble, the more enticing it will be to everyone.”
With 33 singers — the most in years — it’s perfectly balanced: 8 basses, 8 tenors, 8 altos and 9 sopranos.
Rosenberg is understated, but his enthusiasm is palpable. “Orphenians can be fantastic,” he says. “They have the potential to blow people out of the water.”
He recently met Alice Lipson, his predecessor. “She’s wonderful,” he notes. “She was so great and helpful, especially with Candlelight.” He has not yet met the legendary Dr. Weigle.
Michael Sixsmith, Mikell Washington and “Santa.”. The Candlelight Concert includes both traditional music and a jazzy production number. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)
Lipson brought multicultural music to Staples. Rosenberg hopes to expand it. He envisions a spring concert with music from the Middle East, Africa, Asia and South America.
He’d also like to resurrect some of the international tours, pioneered by Weigle and continued by Lipson.
“Change is always difficult,” he acknowledges. His students are “very respectful,” but he could tell in the beginning they were uncertain what lay ahead.
“Once they realized I know what I’m talking about, they understood we can do great things together, and we started working well,” he says. “And once they heard a really good chord locked in, there were goosebumps.”
Westport audiences, he hopes, will feel those goosebumps too.
You may not notice the piano at Staples’ Candlelight Concerts next weekend — but the singers and musicians sure will.
A fund drive to raise $30,000 for a new Yamaha C3 grand piano — in honor of now-retired choral director Alice Lipson — has borne fruit. The old one was used for every Candlelight Concert, musical performance, Players production and — for good measure, music class — for years. It played out its string.
Dave DeVoll (center) and Fran Southworth present the new piano to David Winer, townwide music supervisor.
Fran Southworth and Dave DeVoll headed up a Staples Music Parents Association fundraising effort. “We desperately need a new piano!” is not an easy sell, but the money finally came in.
The final piece was a luncheon/recital in late September. Westporter Frederic Chiu — a nationally renowned classical pianist — was the featured performer.
Buying a grand piano is a bit more intricate than a scarf, or even an SUV. The instrument needed custom voicing work done at the New York factory. With tone quality regulated and improved, the new piano is now up to professional concert level.
This far exceeds the average “educational” piano found in most schools. Then again, the Staples music program far exceeds the average too.
A humidifier system has been installed in the piano — very important, during the dry days of winter.
The piano debuts next Friday and Saturday (Dec. 10 and 11), at the Candlelight Concerts. This is the 70th anniversary of that prestigious event.
With luck — and loving care — Staples’ grand piano will be around for 69 more.
(Anyone [including non-parents] interested in joining the Staples Music Parents Association should email firstname.lastname@example.org, and/or go to the next meeting: Tuesday, Jan. 11, 7:30 p.m. in the Staples orchestra room.)
Staples held its 123rd commencement this afternoon. The only thing warmer than the good feeling of watching an outstanding class graduate was the fieldhouse. The Class of 2010 is now history — but all of Westport salutes them for an astonishing 13-year school career of achievement, enthusiasm and joy.
Smiling graduates-to-be line up before entering the fieldhouse to "Pomp and Circumstance."
TV production instructor Mike Zito at the control board in the fieldhouse. Savvy attendees fled the sweltering fieldhouse for the air-conditioned cafeteria, where TV monitors showed the action up close and personal.
Jason Bennett, flanked by his proud mom Donna Pace and eventual Staples grad brother.
Dartmouth-bound Megan Kratky is congratulated by Brendan Lesch. He hopes to graduate next year.
Retired chemistry teacher Bruce McFadden shares some words with Jahari Dodd. Jahari was the MC for last night's Baccalaureate ceremony.
Michael McCarthy poses with his grandmother, Joan McCarthy, and father Stuart McCarthy. Stuart is a Staples '79 grad.
Two legends are retiring this year: choral director Alice Lipson and Latin instructor Dan Sullivan. As with the400-plus grads, today was a bittersweet time for them.
For 22 years, Alice Lipson has said “It’s all about the music.”
With all due respect to the veteran Staples choral director, she’s wrong.
It’s all about the music — and the people.
Alice Lipson, always smiling. (Photo by Lynn U. Miller)
Last night, several hundred people came — from as far away as Florida — to the Staples auditorium. They paid tribute to 2 other people who truly are all about the music: Lipson and her predecessor, George Weigle.
Fifty years ago, Weigle founded Orphenians. For the past 22 years Lipson has led the elite singing group. They are the only 2 conductors in its half-century history.
Lipson is retiring this month, so last night was a chance to say thanks — in words and song — to her, to the founder, and to the Orphenians program itself.
The 2 conductors — she still youthful, with her long, flowing trademark braid; he still hale, hearty and commanding in his 80s — walked onstage together, earning a rousing standing ovation.
Lipson put her Orphenians through their paces — a rigorous program (the night after the senior prom!) including motets, Billy Joel tunes and solos, all in a variety of languages.
George Weigle applauds past and present Orphenians. (Photo by Lynn U. Miller)
Professional musicians showed their prodigious talents, making sure to thank that same Staples stage for helping launch their careers.
The entire Peterson family — Brad (Class of ’75), Abby ’76, Katie ’00, Sarah ’04 and Scott ’12 — sang the poignant “Lonesome Road.” It’s all about the music, indeed — and about passing it along, from generation to generation.
Finally dozens of alumni gleefully mounted the stage. They — Orphenians from the founding year of 1960, along with members who will continue the tradition next year under Director #3, former Orphenian Justin Miller — performed a rousing rendition of the traditional penultimate number “Ride the Chariot.”
Jon Gailmor -- Staples '66 -- has, like so many former Orphenians, made music his life's work (and joy). (Photo by Lynn U. Miller)
Weigle pronounced it “the loudest” performance of the spiritual he’d ever heard.
“And,” he added, “the most spirited.”
After he “guest conducted” the finale — “The Lord Bless You and Keep You” — alumni, current Orphenians, parents and friends lingered.
They exchanged memories and email addresses. They hugged. They looked back on 50 fantastic Orphenian years, and looked ahead to the next 50.
It was all about the music.
And all about the music program that George Weigle started, Alice Lipson nurtured, and they proudly played a part in.
Music, Alice Lipson always stressed, is a family affair. Professional musician Jeff Southworth accompanies his son Alan (Staples '10) on the haunting song "Home." (Photo by Lynn U. Miller)
Alice Lipson conducting the Orphenians for the last time. (Photo by Lynn U. Miller)
For 21 years — always seen from behind — Alice Lipson’s flowing, braided hair has been the “face” of Staples choral music.
Next fall, the director’s hair will be much shorter. And male.
Justin Miller has verbally accepted an offer to succeed Lipson — retiring after 35 years in the Westport school system — as director of Staples’ choruses, choirs and Orphenians.
He is only the 3rd choral director in the past 51 years. From 1959 to 1989, George Weigle held the post.
It is a position of great tradition — as Miller well knows. A Westporter from 1st grade on, he sang for Lipson between 1998 and 2001.
Justin Miller holds up the "Choir of the World" trophy last year in Wales.
It is a position of great importance t00 — and Miller is up to the task. Not yet 30, he is a founder, past president and current musical director of the Westminster Chorus. Last year they were crowned international champs — winning the “Choir of the World” Pavarotti Trophy in Wales — while in 2007 they earned an international chorus gold medal.
In Wales they beat out choirs from major American universities, and accomplished European choirs. One judge called them “musical butter — soft, inviting and delicious.”
The chance to return to Staples — where he acted in “Chorus Line” as a freshman, toured Scotland with “Pippin,” and led the now-legendary barbershop group the Testostertones — lured Miller east from California, where he now teaches.
“Westport is a really special community,” he says.
“As a student teacher, and through festivals I’ve been a part of, I’ve learned it’s hard to find an entire town that is as involved in the success of its high school as Westport is.
“There are strong programs in other places, but there’s something special about Westport. It’s why I wanted to come back.”
He double majored in choral directing and music education at Chapman University, then began work on his master’s.
Miller has found success out West. In addition to Westminster, he was part of 3 international chorus championships with the Masters of Harmony.
Though young, he has held choral leadership positions for years — directing, as well as handling budgets and preparing for competitions.
Miller traveled to Westport over his spring break from Tesoro High School in Orange County to interview with teachers and administrators, and teach a freshman chorus class. Fortuitously, superintendent Elliott Landon was in Los Angeles during our own spring break, and interviewed Miller there.
How does he feel about replacing Lipson, a legend?
“I can’t replace her,” Miller says. “She’s been there so long, and so much of the program is representative of her.
“There are things I’ll do differently, because we’re different people. But luckily I was in choir and Orphenians. I know her style. Hopefully I can make it a smooth transition.”
One difference: He hopes to introduce “modern composers, who are rock stars in the choral world,” into the repertoire.
He would like to enter more festivals and contests, and sing for other schools and choral directors. “Their feedback on what we’re doing is important,” Miller says.
He may also incorporate his Testostertones experience into the curriculum, organizing small ensembles with contemporary music.
And he might reintroduce Fine Arts Nights — a Lipson innovation — with evenings of musical theater, pops and classical music.
“Alice had the benefit of coming from a middle school,” Miller says. “I don’t know many people at Staples any more.
“I look forward to getting to know the juniors and seniors. The more a choir feels like a family, the more quality work we’ll be able to do.”
As Alice Lipson passes her choir family on to Justin Miller — the next leader, and young enough to be her son — she knows the next Staples chorus generation is in good hands.
(Click here for the Westminster Chorus in action in Wales last year — and here for a great YouTube video of Miller’s reaction at the international championship presentation.)
Click here to help support “06880” via credit card or PayPal. Any amount is welcome — and appreciated! Reader contributions keep this blog going. (Alternate methods: Please send a check to: Dan Woog, 301 Post Road East, Westport, CT 06880. Or use Venmo: @DanWoog06880. Or Zelle: email@example.com. Thanks!)