“Sing piano, but breathe like you’re going to sing fortissimo – draw the audience into you,” came the direction to Ypsilanti Community Choir members from Ariel Toews-Ricotta. They were rehearsing Thursday night at Emmanuel Lutheran Church on River Street in Ypsilanti for the next-to-last time before their Dec. 11 holiday concert. The concert, to be performed jointly with the Ypsilanti Community Band, is free to the public, with free parking for Pease Auditorium available on the Eastern Michigan University campus.
Joint performances by the choir and the band have been a tradition for a quarter century, dating back to the choir’s debut in April of 1983. The band-choir connection was noticed almost instantly by The Chronicle on entering the church fellowship hall area, when we were chatted up by a guy who looked familiar, but who we couldn’t quite place.
He seemed to already know who we were … oh, yeah, the trombonist who’d been with the band for its entire 30 years! We had seen him at last week’s band rehearsal on Tuesday. It turns out that for the Dec. 11 holiday concert, four members of the band will also be singing with the choir: trombonist Wayne Jahnke [see Photo 7]; bassist Eric Walters; clarinetist Beth Askew; and trumpeter Richard Valencourt.
The logistics of both singing and playing will be pretty straightforward – during the intermission they’ll re-locate – because the only number the two groups will perform jointly is the final piece: the Hallelujah Chorus from The Messiah by Georg Friedrich Handel.
Walters – who was encouraged by his wife and fellow choir member, Lisa, to join the choir – said that it was a pretty easy decision to sing with the choir for the final joint number as opposed to playing the bass. The choir, he said, would need all the help it could get volume-wise to hold its own against the band.
The choir will have some additional support from the audience, which last year numbered more than 500 people. Audience members are encouraged to join in the chorus. Lyrics, for readers who want to prepare in advance, are available from various sources online.
Which is not to say that advance preparation is required – many audience members will likely just follow holiday concert sing-a-long tradition and belt out the parts they recognize.
What else can the audience expect, besides the final Hallelujah? Their full program includes:
- It’s the Holiday Season
- Bashana Haba’ah
- Sleigh Bells
- Cannon of the Bells
- Velvet Shoes
- O Holy Night
- Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
- Gloria I
- Appalachian Christmas
What the audience can’t expect, though, is a baton-wielding conductor. Even though her official portrait shows her with a baton, Toews-Ricotta says she prefers to use just her hands because she can do more with vowel shapes with her hands.
And it’s not like she needs a baton to convince anyone she’s in charge. Asked one choir member, “Boss, on page 11 are we supposed to take it down a notch?” Answer: Yes, that’s mezzo forte.
The pattern for the rehearsal was for Toews-Ricotta to first lead the choir through the sections of a piece she’d already identified as problematic. Work on The Hallelujah Chorus began on the “Lord of lords, and king of kings” section.
In the course of the rehearsal it became apparent what the big cup full of pencils sitting on the piano was for: marking up the sheet music. “Put a huge star there,” admonished Toews-Ricotta, “draw in eyeglasses, do whatever you need to do.” This, after the altos “stepped right in a hole,” mis-phrasing a line from O Holy Night.
Once she’d worked the group through the trouble spots, Toews-Ricotta would say, “Okay, I’ll take that,” and they’d start the number from the beginning, “One, two, ready, sing.”
On Dec. 11, the choir members will be ready to sing at 6:30 p.m. on stage at Pease Auditorium, in preparation for the 7:30 p.m. concert start. And they’re going to be dressed in black, white, or holiday colors (but not flashing light ties), on a stage decorated with poinsettias from Pinter’s.