William Baker Festival Singers in “Candlelight, Carols & Cathedral”

William Baker Festival Singers, conducted by William Baker.

Screen shot from “Candlelight, Carols & Cathedral,” William Baker Festival Singers, conducted by William Baker.

For many, singing is a non-negotiable necessity of holiday tradition. Unfortunately, that activity, without precautions, can be high risk for spreading coronavirus. William Baker Festival Singers, with the intention of spreading only holiday cheer, presented their annual holiday concerts while implementing strict safety procedures for performers and audiences.

Traditions are strange things, ways of doing that we yearn for and yearn to break from, simultaneous causes of comfort and stress. We say these are unprecedented times, we remind ourselves to let go of expectations for the holiday season, we try not to stress that this year will be different in great and small ways, yet many search for a way to keep traditions consistent to our imagined seasonal must-haves, whether sacred or secular.

But surely if there was ever an example of making do, of managing the best of a bad situation, of muddling through moment to moment, of letting go of tradition to focus on the essentials, it’s the story of the birth of Jesus Christ. No room in the inn, no registered health provider, only the company of angels, animals, and roving astronomers, and then a terrified nighttime escape from a vindictive king.

Certainly, those were unprecedented times.

Honoring the event of the birth of Jesus Christ, William Baker Festival Singers offered their annual holiday service in these mixed-up times, a hybrid of tradition, technology and making do. They performed two concerts at Holy Angels Catholic Church in Basehor, Kansas, having rescheduled and relocated the Sunday afternoon concert planned for Kansas City, Missouri due to the citywide restrictions on gatherings.

Usually, Christmas performances are a dime a dozen this time of year, but many groups opted to postponed performances, or switch to archival material or other presentation modes. The Festival Singers’ concerts were offered for in-person audiences (masked, distanced, limited capacity in a large, ventilated space) and also streaming live. This online option made the performance available to those who could not or chose not to gather, but there were some technological snares. Friday night’s live stream didn’t work (but was posted to Facebook later), and though the concert information stated Facebook Live, I was only able to access the Sunday night show via YouTube.

Whatever these glitches, the chorus produced as near a version of their annual celebration of carols as could be hoped. The chorus rehearsed and performed masked and distanced and, at least via the live stream audio, there was no significant detriment to the vocal quality, with clear, cohesive vocal lines, resonance, and joyous exhalations.

Kansas City Bronze, the hand bell ensemble of the Choral Foundation, opened the performance with a charming “Ding Dong Merrily on High,” followed with a segue by John Schaefer on organ into “O Come All Ye Faithful,” performed with the audience as the chorus proceeded to the dais, where they spaced themselves all along with tiers.

The program juxtaposed traditional carols and modern choral versions with readings from scripture. There was no program provided for the virtual audience, so familiar tunes melded into modern works with no preamble or fuss. However, this made it difficult to identify the conductors (other than Baker), soloists, composers or arrangers, including for the fine, somber, a cappella “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”

The production included video stream with effective use of multiple camera angles. Audio was more essential and at the mercy of the listener’s technology. The echoey spoken portions were nearly indiscernible unless using headphones. Audio and video coordinator(s) went uncredited.

A set of not-quite-so-traditional works included “Jesus Christ, the Apple Tree,” and an exultant work for chorus, marimba and flute, “Dancing Day,” arranged by (and, I assumed, featuring) composer-in-residence Sean Sweeden on marimba. (Before the flute player started to play, a plexi screen was put up, a thoughtful precaution.)

John Schaefer, on organ, performed “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming,” off stage and off screen. The camera feed changed a few times, zooming in, zooming out, somewhat unnecessarily for the stately, steady performance. Schaefer then introduced “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” the audience invited to stand and sing along.

A few spirituals round out the program, with the men of the chorus singing “Everywhere I Go” (with especially nice clear work from the tenors) and the full ensemble for “Go Tell It on the Mountain.”

With organ, chorus, and audience together, the program ended with “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing,” the chorus recessing out for a succinct finish. The show may have looked different, but the essentials held true.

Reviewed Sunday, December 20, 2020. William Baker Festival Singers performed “Candlelight, Carols & Cathedral: Celebrating the Beauty & Wonder of Christmas.” For more information visit www.festivalsingers.org.

Libby Hanssen

Originally from Indiana, Libby Hanssen covers the performing arts in Kansas City. She is the author of States of Swing: The History of the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, 2003-2023. Along with degrees in trombone performance, Libby was a Fellow for the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at Columbia University. She maintains the culture bog "Proust Eats a Sandwich."

Leave a Reply