Surrounded by the warm, festive ambiance of the gaily-decorated University Baptist Church, members of the University community gathered for the Virginia Women’s Chorus’ 40th Annual Candlelight Concert Saturday afternoon.
Established in 1974, the Virginia Women’s Chorus holds the title of the University’s oldest women's music organization. Under the musical direction of Katherine “KaeRenae” Mitchell, founding member of the chorus and Class of 1976 Alumna, this group of vocalists blended seamlessly as one body, fully immersing the audience in the enchantment of their sound.
“The students are incredible,” Mitchell said. “They inspire me, they keep me going… Their voices are beautiful and it is really fun to work with them.”
The concert began with singers slowly entering the dimly lit auditorium through the aisles as they serenaded the ears of the audience with their opening number, “Alle Psallite Cum Luya.” This Latin motet was sung in rounds by the chorus and was accompanied by the steady ringing of a triangle chime played by Mitchell.
The number served as a sweet introduction for what was to come.
The women, positioned in rows on stage wearing elegant black dresses that draped to their toes, proceeded with more tunes that filled the space with warmth and cheer. Each song performed carried its own unique emotion — from jubilant and uplifting tunes that inspired merriment and celebration to heartfelt and tender renditions that evoked a more somber mood.
Highlights included a dynamic harp-accompanied rendition of “Hymn to the Waters,” a soulful singing of “Mary Did You Know?” featuring Cate Stanley, soprano soloist and third-year College student, and a hand percussive experience of the Pentatonix-famous “White Winter Hymnal.”
This was not the first time the group incorporated clapping or hand rhythms into their performance, according to Aleah McGill, president of the chorus and third-year Education student.
“A group of us wanted to learn the hand motions and took it upon [ourselves] to learn it on our own,” McGill said.
Rehearsals for the concert began in early September, and the women practiced twice a week for two hours to perfect their performance.
This preparation was apparent through their impressive technique and strong vocal harmonies. The chorus mixed contemporary elements with timeless favorites to make for an exceedingly strong repertoire.
The experience would not have been the same without the piano accompaniment of second-year College student Mary Edith Plunkett and professional harpist Anastasia Jellison. Their musical talent added tremendously to the overall versatility of the performance.
Before entering the final set of musical numbers, the audience was invited to sing along with the chorus for the classic, “Walkin’ in a Winter Wonderland.” This family favorite had audience members cheerfully swaying as they sang the joyous lyrics with one another.
The women then continued with their “ding-dongs” and delivered a jazzy twist on “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,” scooping notes left and right. This strayed from the typical Sinatra and Bublé way, yet worked wonderfully.
For their penultimate number, Mitchell asked all Virginia Women’s Chorus alumni in the audience to join the women on stage and sing the old Shaker melody, “Simple Gifts.” This is a tradition at the end of every concert.
Numerous women across all ages slowly rose from their seats and were greeted on stage with warm hugs and smiles, as they returned to their former voice sections for this emotion-filled moment. Among these women was Rebecca Ewell, founding member of the chorus and Class of 1977 Alumna. Ewell and Mitchell have been longtime friends since the group’s founding.
“It is just so powerful,” Ewell said. “Every voice adds together to make the whole … it is peace, it is beauty, it is unity.”
The chorus wrapped up the concert in the same manner in which they started, slowly filing back toward the aisles as they hummed “Stille Nacht” or “Silent Night.”
This time, however, the lights were dimmed to near darkness and each of the women possessed a candle in hand. The flame began in Mitchell’s candle at the very center and was passed from person to person, illuminating the room one at a time.
The concert was not just a musical performance, but a heartwarming experience that brought people together to bask in the holiday spirit. The enchanting atmosphere, embellished with love, joy and hope was one that will be remembered.