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Chamber Singers to deliver "Sounds of Christmas"

Justine Wettschreck/Daily Globe Worthington Chamber Singers rehearse Thursday night for their upcoming "Sounds of Christmas" Advent concert, which will be performed at 2 p.m. Sunday at First United Methodist Church.

WORTHINGTON -- A small, select and exceptionally skilled set of singers is prepared to usher all comers into the spirit of the season.

From the joyous strains of "Angels We Have Heard on High" to the brightly pleasing "Sing We Now of Christmas," the Worthington Chamber Singers will share the "Sounds of Christmas" when they perform at 2 p.m. Sunday at Worthington's First United Methodist Church.

Joining them in concert are members of the Worthington Brass.

"The things we hear in the grocery store all the time are just one aspect of what Christmas is," said Eric Parrish, director of the ensemble this year. "There is other music out there we don't hear as often, and our program, which has both traditional and new pieces, will be very entertaining."

The premier local adult vocal ensemble since the early 1990s, with a reputation for quality singing and a diverse repertoire, was never in danger of disbanding, although the unforeseen departure of three-year director Joseph Osowski in August was cause for some consternation among its members.

"We were so grateful Eric agreed to step out of his comfort zone to direct us," confirmed Brenda Desmith, a longtime alto in the group.

Parrish, an instructor of music and theater at Minnesota West Community and Technical College since 2007, has a bachelor's degree in music from Gustavus Adolphus College and a master's degree in vocal performance from the University of Northern Colorado, Greeley.

While hardly lacking in music credentials, and with two years of directing the choir at First Lutheran Church under his belt, Parrish's specialty is nevertheless vocalizing rather than directing.

"I'm a bass, and I sang with the Chamber Singers the past two years," explained Parrish. "Singing is my passion, and I've done it my whole life, so now that I'm the director, I miss singing.

"Still, it's fun to be able to work with a group of people dedicated to doing more difficult music," affirmed Parrish. "They are mature and experienced singers with whom I can be creative and who understand the subtleties of what I'm trying to get them to achieve."

That includes tackling works by atonal contemporary composer John Tavener ("The Lamb," set to lyrics by Romantic poet William Blake) and 20th century French composer Francis Poulenc ("O Magnum Mysterium," sung in Latin and featuring unusual note clusters).

Parrish, a trained theater singer who also spent time working at the Denver Children's Theatre, says, "I'm more interested in how you can express the text and the mood of a song sometimes than I am with the sound -- though they are singing really well."

Kari Russell, a soprano new to the ensemble this year, appreciates the musical selections Parrish presented to the group when rehearsals began in late September.

"It's more challenging, generally, than what you may normally sing in church choir," expressed Russell, who sang in the Cathedral Choir while attending Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. Her two oldest daughters are currently students at Luther, and Russell's mother, Ginger Selberg, directed the Worthington Junior High School choirs for many years.

"I like the harmony of 'Lirum, Lirum,' and the spirit of 'Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day," shared Russell of the program's music. "The arrangement of 'Angels We Have Heard on High' is just different enough to keep it interesting."

While the 19 Chamber Singers represent a variety of backgrounds and professions (although six are teachers), they share a lifelong history of involvement in musical pursuits.

All but five of the singers are at least "passable," if not accomplished, pianists, and every member of the group plays at least one other instrument -- in addition to exercising their vocal chords regularly, most in church choirs.

Peter Olson, a baritone, is another Luther College alumnus who sang with Luther's Collegiate Choir during his undergraduate years. Olson previously participated in the spring 2008 Chamber Singers concert, but work obligations last fall and winter kept him from being part of the 2008 December performance.

"I was available to sing this year, and with Eric (Parrish) conducting and former bass section member Larry Hughes moving, there was an even greater need," related Olson, who last weekend sang a duet with Parrish as part of the annual ALBs concert.

"I like Eric's selections, and I enjoy singing as part of a group," continued Olson. "I've sung with church choirs off and on since my college years.

"To sound good together as a small ensemble, we must all listen well, so it's a challenge for both the voice and ear."

Olson is featured as a soloist on "The Birds' Noel," one of several numbers in the program with "noel" among its lyrics.

"The program accidentally gravitated to a 'noel' theme," chuckled Parrish. "Noel is French for Christmas, the day of Christ's birth, so it's very appropriate that we have three pieces including 'noel,' and the congregation will sing 'The First Noel,' too."

Desmith said she hopes Parrish's ability to have the ensemble emote the mood of the music will help convey the composers' messages to the audience.

"There's something for everyone in this concert," assured Parrish. "Some of the music will be familiar, some edgy, some new and beautiful, but as an artist, I see beauty in that type of diversity; there's beauty in everything."

The Worthington Chamber Singers perform 2 p.m. Sunday at First United Methodist Church, 408 11th St., Worthington, along with the Worthington Brass. A freewill offering will be taken, with proceeds benefiting a local charity.