The Christmas story always has brought out the best in musicians — whether composers, performers, arrangers or conductors. Its inspiration compels them to new levels of achievement. A small ELCA congregation provides a bright example of creative accomplishment.
St. Luke Lutheran Church in rural Sidney, N.Y., has an average Sunday attendance of 60 and a choir of more than 20. The choir presents an annual Christmas concert — but with far more than familiar carols. Each annual concert has a theme that plays out through music from different locales and time periods.
Last season the focus was on Mary, the mother of Jesus. Selections included Magnificats by Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) and John Rutter (1945-), Ave Marias by Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) and Francis Poulenc (1899-1963), and a carol from Trinidad. During the performance, slides of artwork depicting Mary were projected on the sanctuary wall.
James Vargo, pastor, says the driving force behind these imaginative concerts is Barbara Loitch, music director and organist. Loitch also leads the choir in investigating the music's history and meaning.
In preparation for the Mary concert, the choir and congregation spent six weeks studying the compositions' backgrounds (including political and cultural context), the composers' lives and influences, and the diverse musical styles represented. The result is that by performance time, there is a rich atmosphere of expectation and appreciation. During the year, the choir presents other concerts that also are preceded by study and discussion. St. Luke's musical programs, Loitch says, "feed people's need for spirituality."
This year's concert is dedicated to a parishioner's daughter who recently died. The theme, illustrated through a musical play Loitch wrote, is how the angels might have prepared for the Annunciation. It will include selections from Handel's Prepare the Way and contemporary gospel music.
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