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Sharing the Light: Mission College Chorus Glows in Winter Concert

Sharing the Light: Mission College Chorus Glows in Winter Concert

“The time has changed, winter is definitely on its way. […] This is the season of transitions, gatherings of family, friends featuring feasting, friendship, conviviality, and peace, which are all things our world is in so desperate need of right now,” Conductor John Ector explained in his introduction to the Dec. 7 Mission College Choir Concert held in the Gillmor Center on campus. Thanks to Ector’s creative selections, the Winter Concert brought a little “light and warmth,” just as he had hoped, to the appreciative audience.

The lively free concert featured the Mission Chorus accompanied by pianist Christopher Pasillas along with the Alegria Singers of the First Unitarian Church of San Jose.  At times, the chorus’ voices spilled out of the music hall, drawing passerby to stand in the doorframe, listening before joining the audience. The seven selections ranged in time periods – from the opening “O choruscans lux sellarum” a chant by the 12th Century German Abbess Hildegard of Bingen to an Eric Whitacre piece “Glow” composed in 2013.  Ector also arranged many of the pieces specifically for his chorus.

The first several pieces focused on religious visions. “O Magesterium Mysertium,” the second piece of the opening set, for example, was composed by Giovanni Gabrieli for St. Mark’s Basilica in Italy during the shift between Renaissance and Baroque music. Gabrieli, the organist of the Basilica, hoped that if his listener “closed [their] eyes, [they’d] hear angels in three dimensions” Ector explained, as they listened to this piece.  While the original arrangement called for the musicians and chorus to be seated in various parts of the large church, Ector’s arrangement still allowed the chorus to shine as they sang their passionate “Alleluia” from the risers.

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Next, the chorus gave a well-received encore performance of their “Rejoice, O Virgin” by Rachmaninoff, but their final piece of the first set clearly moved several audience members.  The “Solstice Song,” a popular interfaith chorus song by Alouette Iselin and arranged by Peter Amidon, reinforced one of the main messages of the evening. The chorus was simple but powerful: “Let me come in and share your light / for I’m without a friend tonight / Let me come in and share your light / And a warm place by your fire.” As Ector noted, “we sing this tonight in the spirit of giving and charity to those perhaps not as fortunate, but also as a fervent wish to all.”

Between sets, Cindy Slowither, the last applied music student at Mission College (the school is phasing out the program), entertained the audience with pieces by Chopin and Duke Ellington. But, arguably, the best part of the evening was the second set. These three contemporary tunes – Sting’s “Lullaby for an Anxious Child,” from his If On a Winter’s Night 2009 album; “Walking in the Air” from the 1982 animated film of Raymond Briggs’ 1978 children’s book The Snowman; and Eric Whitacre’s “Glow” – all showcased songs that “gobsmacked” Ector when he first heard them.  Clearly, the choir’s goal was to repeat that experience for the audience.

Each of these final songs fit well with the evening’s theme. Sting commented on his song in his program notes, “Our ancestors celebrated the paradox of light at the heart of the darkness and the consequent miracle of rebirth and regeneration of the seasons.” Sting’s piece, a simple lullaby, evoked a surprisingly deep response from the chorus with the line “Hush child, all the strength I’ll need to find I’ll find inside your eyes.”

But the final song of the evening – Eric Whitacre’s “Glow” – was the showstopper. For this song, the Mission Chorus was joined by the Alegria Singers from the First Unitarian Church of San Jose.  As Ector explained, this song was designed to be one of collaboration.  Disney commissioned the piece from Whitacre in 2013 for the “World of Color: Winter Dreams” show for their southern California theme park.  Whitacre, inspired by previous work with digital choirs, put a call to choruses around the country to record their members singing the tune.  Whitacre accepted most of the recordings and, with sound engineers, blended 1,473 singers together digitally for this “Virtual Choir” performance.  While the 26 members of the Bay Area blended choruses obviously couldn’t recreate the full experience of the Virtual Chorus, their performance brought warmth to the audience’s heart, receiving a round of hearty applause.

Ector stated he hopes to continue offering a collaborative choir experience.  The Mission Chorus performed later that week at the Unitarian Church in a meditative service themed “Facing the Shadows.” And while Ector enthusiastically thanked his choirs for their hard work preparing for this concert, it is obvious that these singers derive their musical “glow” from Ector’s leadership – his passion is evident to all in attendance from the first to last rows.  To discover this hidden gem of the Bay Area, visit missioncollege.edu/depts/music/schedule_music.html for information on upcoming concerts.

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