GUILFORD -- Friends of Music at Guilford invites Tri-State residents of all ages to its 40th annual Christmas program on Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., at historic Christ Church in Guilford.
The theme for this season is "Christmas Cometh Caroling," the title of one of 15 Alfred Burt Carols composed in the 1940s and ‘50s. Since mid-September, Tom Baehr has been conducting rehearsals of 10 of these carols with a group of nearly 20 Guilford Chamber Singers. Many have sung with Friends of Music for a long time, and others are new to this annual "pick-up" group but sing with other choirs and choruses in the area.
Singers include sopranos Janis Chaillou, Maisie Crowther, Christina Gibbons, Leslie Kinney and Sharry J. Manning; altos Christie Baskett, Mary Lou Johnson, Andrea Matthews, Beth McKinney and Joy Wallens-Penford; tenors Bill Johnson, Tom Robertson and Ruth Sessions; and basses Peter Abell, Orion Barber, Charles Butterfield, Chuck Crowther and Abijah Reed.
Even if you have never heard of Alfred Burt, you may be familiar with his work. Several of the carols were introduced to radio and television audiences by icons of the ‘50s and ‘60s such as Nat King Cole, Perry Como and Patti Page, and they have been recorded on many a holiday album.
The story of the carols begins with Burt’s father, the Rev. Bates Burt, who wrote a new "carol" each season to send as part of the family Christmas card. When Alfred was skilled enough, he began writing the music. Then, when the elder Burt died, the church’s organist, Wilha Hutson, stepped into the role of lyricist. Burt’s musical compositions were certainly influenced by his training as a jazz musician at the University of Michigan and beyond.
Baehr’s program notes state: "These carols, written from 1942 to 1954, reflect Alfred Burt’s career as a jazz trumpet player in the Alvino Rey Orchestra in his choice of lush harmonies. He asked the singers with the group to sing through one of his carols so he could check the voicing, and they loved it so much that they programmed it on their shows. This exposure led to a popular acceptance of several more carols."
And the rest is history, as they say. Unfortunately, Burt died of lung cancer in 1954 at age 34, so he didn’t have the chance to see how far his handful of carols have spread across the musical world.
Steve Rice will lead a brass quartet of BUHS students to play three other Burt carols arranged by Baehr as prelude, interlude and postlude surrounding two sets of five carols by the Chamber Singers. The BUHS Brass Quartet includes Benson May and Jonathon Burdo on trumpets, Molly Rice on French horn and Spencer Olson on trombone.
Don McLean, former long-time Friends of Music administrator and a founder of the organization, has also been closely associated with this annual event. Reprising the work he read at the very first gathering, he is performing his entertaining rendition of Dylan Thomas’ "A Child’s Christmas in Wales," in which he brings to life many of the colorful characters in the story. McLean recently pointed out that the author died at 39, so he has been performing this work for longer than its author was alive.
The event comes to a close with a few carols sung by everyone. When the lights dim for the final, hummed verse of "Silent Night," the Christ Church bell rings out a welcome to the holiday season. A spirited crowd heads out into the dark and wintry chill.
As always, this event, with donations encouraged to support Friends of Music programs and the preservation fund of historic Christ Church, which is now open only for special events.