THE PILOT – Ordinarily, hundreds of people attend the St. Paul’s Choir School’s live Christmas performances in the spacious St. Paul Church in Harvard Square. However, since social-distancing restrictions would prevent such an event this year, the school decided to bring its concert to an even wider audience by recording it and making it available to their supporters online.
In lieu of its annual Christmas concert, the school will present a filmed concert performance online on Dec. 19.
“In this season’s anxious atmosphere of social distancing, ‘Starry Night: Christmas in Harvard Square’ is a beacon of musical hope,” the school said in a Dec. 1 press release.
The concert is conducted by James Kennerley, the school’s choirmaster and director of music. Kennerley and assistant director of music Maks Adach will provide accompaniment on St. Paul Church’s pipe organ.
“During this year, it has become crystal clear just how much we all need music in our lives,” Kennerley said.
Head of School Thomas Haferd said the performance is “a welcome reminder of the traditions that, now more than ever, ground and define us all.”
During this academic year, the only time the choir has been able to participate in live singing has been during the celebration of the Mass. Kennerley said they had to be careful to keep the group isolated. They wore masks while rehearsing, spread out across the rehearsal and performance spaces, and were tested for the coronavirus prior to filming.
“It was a miracle that this happened and that it was as successful as it was and that we had a totally clean bill of health throughout the process,” Kennerley said in a Dec. 3 interview.
He said he conceived the idea for the concert’s theme when he saw Vincent van Gogh’s famous painting “Starry Night” in a museum. Although the painting does not explicitly relate to Christmas, Kennerley said, it is “incredibly atmospheric,” and the idea of stars seemed “particularly pertinent” for Christmastime.
They chose musical pieces that would convey this theme either in their subject matter or in their “texture.” Kennerley described them as being similar to “when you look up at the stars, and you don’t really see specific things, you see more of a glimmering, shimmering texture.”
“A lot of the music that we’re singing, it does exactly that in musical form,” he said.
The concert’s 15 musical selections include Christmas favorites, classical pieces, compositions of contemporary artists, such as John Rutter and Eric Whitacre, and original arrangements by Kennerley and the school’s founder, Theodore Marier.
“We wanted to make sure we chose selections that created a sense of wonder and awe that would come through a screen,” Kennerley said.
He said it was important that the recording convey the same kind of immersion that an audience would experience inside St. Paul Church.
“The way we sing and the music we perform is totally curated to the particular space, the acoustics, the wonderful ambiance that we have. So we wanted to make sure that that came across,” Kennerley said.
He said the recording will give people the sense of being in the front row, which is “extremely compelling” at a time when many people are isolated.
The event, he said, is “a little bit like a cross between a concert and a meditation on Advent and Christmas.”
“I think that this is a really compelling way to reach out to people and connect and ultimately to brighten their lives and bring them some Christmas cheer,” Kennerley said.
Some segments of “Starry Night: Christmas in Harvard Square” will be available for free on the school’s social media platforms. The full concert will premiere on Dec. 19 at 7 p.m. via a viewing hyperlink, which will be made available to viewers after making a contribution at ChristmasInHarvardSquare.com. The CatholicTV Network is also scheduled to air the performance on Christmas Eve at 10 p.m. and again on Christmas Day at 4 p.m.
By Jacqueline Tetrault