The holidays bring many special things and, for me, one of the best is the music. It sets a mood, invokes memories, soothes the soul and provides a seasonal soundtrack for my life.
This weekend, you can immerse yourself in some very special holiday music when the Greater South Jersey Chorus presents “A Winter’s Night,” described on the website as a concert of “expressive Spanish-influenced ‘Carols and Lullabies,’ a rhythmic Nigerian carol and holiday favorites … accompanied by guitar, harp and percussion.”
Also on the site, Artistic Director Christopher Thomas explains further, “The centerpieces for our 2018 holiday concert are Conrad Susa’s lovely ‘Carols and Lullabies,’ Sarah Quartel’s meditative ‘Snow Angel’ and the rhythmic and joyous ‘Betelemehu.’”
Perhaps this strikes you as an unusual selection of works for a holiday concert repertoire, but it is this bold programming that makes GSJC so distinctive.
The group is now in its 27th season and – since its beginnings in 1992 – has changed dramatically from what Board President John Vovak described as a “true community ensemble” to become the musical organization it is today.
“For most of our history, we were a local group of people who were in it for the love of making music,” Vovak said. “But the desire to get better and to grow was always there.”
Vovak explained that the GSJC has always had strong leadership and that this has continued since Thomas, an associate professor, Director of Choral Activities and past chair of the Department of Music at Rowan University, took over in 2016.
“His musical guidance is brilliant,” said Vovak. “He helped shift the culture from being a group of people who like to sing to something more.”
Thomas takes this to heart.
“One of my most important roles as artistic director is to maintain the interest of the singers,” Thomas said. “I try to not put any limitations on what we do. We now have more than 100 singers and I am always trying to find new ways to engage them.”
Aside from continually introducing interesting, and sometimes challenging, material to the singers, another method Thomas employs to keep the chorus vital is to partner with other local groups.
“Just about everything we have done this year has been collaborative,” he said.
For example, last week the GSJC sang at a Philharmonic of Southern New Jersey Christmas concert, which gave the singers an opportunity to perform with a full orchestra.
This spring, the GSJC will do two works with a chamber orchestra and will join with the Garden State Girlchoir and New Jersey Boychoir to present “Out of Darkness” (featuring “Requiem for the Living,” “Mass of the Children” and “Gabriel’s Oboe”) for the season finale.
In addition to providing exposure and artistic opportunities for the singers, collaborations also create a situation where the sum is far greater than the individual parts.
Cultural and arts organizations often function primarily on the energy and commitment of volunteers, Thomas explained. And in an environment where big budgets are often the currency of success, it can be a struggle for smaller groups to get the attention they deserve.
“We are all scrambling, going to board meetings and trying to invent a new wheel,” he said. And Thomas believes that this is where working with others makes the most impact.
“If our objective is to strengthen our audience bases and reach more people,” said Thomas, “we need to be helping each other.”
To take this a step further, Thomas added that a concert such as the one that includes the children’s choirs is a perfect example of reaching out. “It’s great to be able to incorporate that community,” he said.
The word “community” came up several times in my conversations with Thomas and Vovak, making it clear to me that both consider this an integral aspect to keeping the chorus healthy and robust.
As an example, Thomas explained that there are two “primary roads” by which potential singers find their way to the GSJC.
One results from Thomas’ position at Rowan. “People know me and my work at Rowan, and there’s a steady consortium of alumni who audition,” Thomas said. “We probably have a dozen or so alumni in the choir now.”
Hearing about the second path, though, initially surprised me.
“When I ask what brought someone to the audition,” Thomas said, “they often say that they’re relatively new to the area and think getting involved with a chorus is a good way to get connected.”
And, when you think about what’s involved with group singing, that explanation makes perfect sense.
A 2014 Psychology Today article that enumerates the benefits states, “Singing means community and interpersonal connection. Choruses come together to work on a program; they have a sense of purpose that is larger than any one individual. When people gather, even once a year around a piano or in full-fledged Messiah sing-a-long mode, voices are raised together.”
Thomas concurs. “Singers are community-builders.”
The Greater South Jersey Chorus presents “A Winter’s Night” on Saturday, December 15, at 8:00 PM at the St. John Neumann Church, 560 Walton Avenue, Mount Laurel, NJ 08054; and Sunday, December 16, at 3:00 PM at Christ Our Light, 402 Kings Highway North, Cherry Hill, NJ 08034.