Musical gifts: Orchestra, Chamber Singers offer holiday concerts
WORTHINGTON -- If December just isn't the same for you without plenty of live, high-quality holiday music, this is your week to revel.
Two local musical groups -- the Worthington Area Orchestra and the Worthington Chamber Singers -- present concerts in the next few days, both set at Worthington's First United Methodist Church, 408 11th St.
The Worthington Area Orchestra (WAO) will perform its inaugural concert at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, while the two decades-old Chamber Singers, joined by the Worthington Brass, will share "The Sounds of Christmas" at 2 p.m. Sunday.
Less than a year ago, the WAO was merely a fine idea being hatched by the Great Plains String Quartet (comprised of violinists Melanie Loy and Beth Habicht, violist Karen Pfeifer and cellist Sue Simonson).
Today, about 25 string players from Worthington and surrounding towns are poised to deliver their first-ever concert, under the able baton of Dr. Christopher Stanichar, director of orchestral activities at Augustana College, Sioux Falls, S.D.
"I'm so proud of them," beamed Stanichar. "The people are so warm here, and while the music can be very challenging, there are sure talented people in Worthington, and it's fun to watch the intergenerational friendships develop in this group."
Indeed, eight current Worthington High School orchestra students are part of the WAO, so members' ages range from 14 up to 77.
The 77-year-old is Sally Ann Johnson, who picked up a cello for the first time since seventh grade about 18 months ago.
Under the dedicated and patient tutelage of Habicht, who directed the District 518 string program for 38 years, Johnson has progressed enough to join the orchestra in its crowd-pleasing but musically challenging program, which includes the overture to Handel's "Messiah" and Gustav Holst's St. Paul's Suite, among other numbers.
"I love it," glowed Johnson. "It's been a whole new world for me, and Beth is a tremendous teacher who has such faith in me. I'm so appreciative of her help.
"Dr. Stanichar is excellent, besides being very understanding and so knowledgeable," continued Johnson. "We're playing some difficult music, and my brain hasn't worked this hard in years, but I'm really looking forward to the concert. I'll be nervous because I want to play well, but I'm going to give it my best."
That's exactly what Stanichar is seeking from his players.
"Do your best -- that's all you can do, and I accept that -- and we'll have fun making music," exhorted Stanichar at a recent rehearsal.
Other concert features include a selection popularized by Mannheim Steamroller, "A Christmas Festival" by Leroy Anderson, and Bach's Double Concerto for Oboe and Violin in D Minor, featuring Kristi Stanichar on oboe and WAO concertmaster Tiffany Holmes of Dovray on violin.
"This is kind of a dream come true," said Loy, noting that she and her fellow Great Plains String Quartet members were encouraged to procure a grant to start the WAO by Dave Skog and Ellen Copperud and were assisted in writing the grant request by Margaret Hurlbut Vosburgh.
"It's exciting to see this come to fruition, and we're hoping many community members will come out to hear what this multi-aged orchestra has put together."
Loy, who succeeded Habicht in 2006 as the District 518 string instructor, said the WAO is already looking forward to its spring concert, which will take place in late May at Memorial Auditorium.
But first things first: "Tis the season to make music," intoned Stanichar, expressing his enthusiasm about leading the WAO in its seasonal selections at its inaugural concert this Thursday.
With 21 skilled vocalists in the ranks, the Worthington Chamber Singers are ready to present "The Sounds of Christmas" in their annual concert this Sunday afternoon.
"It's wonderful that Worthington can support this amount and level of music," expressed Eric Parrish, who is directing the vocal ensemble for a second year and is an instructor of music and theater at Minnesota West Community and Technical College.
"In a community of this size, it's terrific to have so much interest, support and participation, both from musicians and audiences."
This year, Parrish chose musical selections with a decidedly botanical theme.
"When you start listing Christmas songs, you become more aware of it," Parrish noted. "'Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming,' 'The Holly and the Ivy,' 'O, Christmas Tree' -- lots of songs about trees and wreaths.
"Then I began thinking about all the symbols and decorations we use at Christmas -- garlands, wreaths, trees, and the theological implications of being ever-green and growing, of new life such as a beautiful rose coming from a dry, thorny bush."
Hence, this year's program includes all of the above-named pieces, as well as "Bright, Bright The Holly Berries," "The Cherry Tree Carol," "There is a Flower," "Jesus Christ, the Apple Tree," "The Crown of Roses" and a vocal arrangement of "Waltz of the Flowers" from Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker."
"Two years ago, director Joe Osowski had the men do an arrangement of 'The Sugarplum Fairy,' and this 'Waltz of the Flowers' involves all voices but is similarly novel and jazzy," related Parrish.
"Altos Dawn Gordon and Susan Hansberger had wanted us to sing 'The Crown of Roses,' which they had sung as students at Augustana College, and I did this arrangement of 'Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming,' which is written for a double choir with 12 parts, twice when I was at Gustavus.
"Overall, there's more music that people will recognize this year, and I think that will be appealing for the audience," offered Parrish. "And we're planning to end the concert with a traditional a cappella version of 'Silent Night' that has been a favorite in past years."
The Worthingon Brass will also add to the day's music with several seasonal selections.
"We really enjoy being in the Methodist church, because the acoustics there are great," credited Parrish. "These vocalists pick up things really well and are willing to work hard at learning things that are new and different.
"It's always fun to work with musicians of this skill level, and sharing our efforts with an appreciative audience makes it even more worthwhile."
The inaugural concert of the Worthington Area Orchestra is 7:30 p.m. Thursday at First United Methodist Church, 408 11th St., Worthington. There is a fee; tickets are available in advance from orchestra members or at the door. The Worthington Chamber Singers, along with the Worthington Brass, perform Sunday at 2 p.m., also at First United Methodist Church. A freewill offering will be taken, with proceeds benefiting a local charity.