Lessons and Carols captures holiday spirit through inspired performances of Chamber, Handbell Choirs

For those of you who savor everything about the traditional Christmas experience and are diligently counting the days until you can commune with your family’s Christmas tree, the Service of Lessons and Carols was the place to be Sunday evening. Held in Thompson Memorial Chapel, it featured performances by both the Williams College Chamber Choir and the Williams Handbell Choir. Students, faculty and community members read various Christmas-related Biblical passages as part of the service as well. Modeled after the traditional English Lessons and Carols Service from King’s College, Cambridge, this Williams service was arranged by the Reverend Robert K. Buckwalter, the Chaplain to the College, Dr. E. Wayne Abercrombie, director of the Williams Chamber Choir and Richard Giarusso ’00, the student director of the Williams Chamber Choir.

Thompson Chapel was decorated festively for the occasion. Poinsettias, candles and red bows accented the chapel’s striking gothic architecture, creating an atmosphere that filled those who attended the service with the Christmas spirit.

Both the 4 p.m. and the 7:30 services were well attended. The early service attracted a near capacity crowd. Both programs began with the Chamber Choir singing “Carol of the Bells” from the rear of the Chapel. After performing the first verse of the hymn “Once in Royal David’s City,” the choir, Buckwalter, Interim Associate Chaplain to the College Peter Feudo, and the acolytes processed to the front of the Chapel.

After the congregation had sung the tale of David’s city and the opening prayers had been given the choir performed O Heiland, reiss die Himmel auf, a piece by composer Johannes Brahms. With grace that rivaled and perhaps surpassed the group’s November 14th Fall Concert, the Chamber Choir nicely executed this German work. The remainder of the service continued with selected readings from the books of Micah, Isaiah, Luke, Matthew and John. Various members of the Williams community, including students, professors, local citizens, and for the evening service a special appearance by Dean Peter Murphy, took turns at the podium reading lessons to the congregation.

The readings and prayers were successfully mixed with carols from the Chamber Choir to give that special feeling of Christmas cheer. Throughout such songs as “The Shepherd’s Carol” by William Billings, a piece the group has been working with for some time, and an arrangement of new pieces including Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen and the more traditional “A First Nowell,” the group for the most part sang very well. The evening’s choir performance came to a climax with the piece Verbum Caro, a 15th century English melody. This stark, simple work came together beautifully as the Latin lyrics harmoniously filled the Cathedral’s space.

Directed by Douglas Moore, the Williams Handbell Choir stole the show for many. As the congregation exited the cathedral with the conclusion of the service they were met with a lovely set of ringing melodies. As a newcomer to the Handbell Choir, I was pleasantly shocked by their music. And watching them perform was as enjoyable as listening to the tones that drifted over my head.

The group’s members, each armed with an assortment of bells ranging in size from slightly larger then a soupspoon to about the size of a small trash can, rang their notes in a methodical, dance-like manner, occasionally pausing to switch bells with the collection spread out in front of them on foam-covered tables.

Whether you’re completely opposed to the entire idea of Christmas, or already have your artificial Christmas tree up and decorated in your common room, Lessons and Carols was fun for the whole family, providing a little Christmas cheer in the midst of the approaching storm of finals. If you missed it this year, it’s a must-see next December.