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It Was a Celebration of Joy of 90 Years of Choral Singing

On my watch: It Was a Celebration of Joy of 90 Years of Choral Singing at Christ Church Greenwich

Professor James O’Donnell leading the combined Christ Church choirs in “I Was Glad.” Photo by Joanne Bouknight.

By Anne W. Semmes

Last Saturday evening there was an historic gathering of extraordinary choral talent and Anglican musical tradition celebrating 90 years of choir singing at Christ Church Greenwich. That Anglican tradition was first seen in the presence of the four British talents leading the 100 choristers: Jamie Hitel, Director of Music, Dr. Phillip Moore, Visiting Artist/Composer, James O’Donnell, Visiting Artist-in Residence and former Organist/ Master of Choristers at Westminster Abbey – now Professor at Yale’s Institute of Sacred Music, and lastly, Jonathan Vaughn, Associate Director of Music, and organist supreme.

The backdrop for that singing was a British-made organ by Harrison & Harrison – makers of the organ in Westminster Abbey – that was installed at Christ Church in 2022, as the company’s largest organ built in America to date.

Jamie Hitel welcomed the 400 attendees with addressing the power of his chorister organization “for character building and fellowship, as well as for musical training and service to Christ.” And he told how it had begun in 1934 with his predecessor Claude Means “putting together a new choir consisting of men and boys.” Since then, “hundreds of children have been shaped by the discipline of regular rehearsal and teamwork… They in turn have used the gift of music to shape others in times of joy, sorrow, Thanksgiving, repentance and celebration.”

Hitel gave thanks also [with a touch of humor] to “our unsung heroes, choir parents…We couldn’t have done it without your gifts of time, talent, and treasure, not to mention the thousands of really enjoyable trips up and down the Post Road.”

He described the celebratory concert as “showcasing six of our seven choirs” in a selection that “showcases the breadth and depth of repertoire unique to each choir.” And that program selection also reflected Joy that is this year’s Christ Church’s 275th celebration theme.

Attendees could read the history of the selected pieces sung in their programs, as with the joyful opening selection, Charles Hubert Hastings Parry’s anthem, “I Was Glad,” sung at all British coronations since 1902, with the combined choirs directed by O’Donnell. There was also Judith Weir’s “I love all beauteous things,” with text by poet Robert Bridges, sung at Queen Elizabeth II’s 90th birthday, as sung by the Christ Church Singers, directed by O’Donnell.

Featured as well was the Christ Church Bell Choir playing “Amazing Grace” with its famous words plaintively written in the 18th century by John Newton of England, formerly involved in the slave trade “but pardoned to preach the faith.” That tune would only come a near century later from America’s Deep South.

A lovely “harvest anthem that emphasizes our responsibility for the environment” was “Look at the World” with its stanzas including, “Think of the spring/Think of the warmth of summer/Bring in the harvest/Before the winter’s cold/Everything has a season/Til it is gathered to the fathers fold.” It was sung by the Choir of Men & Boys and the St. Cecelia Choir of Girls, with lyrics and music by English composer and conductor John Rutter and led by Jamie Hitel.

With the organ playing a major role Hitel had told, the choirs would come together for a “grand conclusion of Parry’s “Hear My Words Ye People.” The singers began, “Hear my words, ye people/give ear unto me all ye that have knowledge/Let us choose to us judgement, /let us know among ourselves what is good.” And that finale would include the youngest St. Nicholas Choir (ages 5), “adding icing to the cake.” And that they certainly did.

But now, a closer look at those Christ Church choirs. There is the Christ Church Choir of Men and Boys, the St Cecilia Choir of Girls, the Christ Church Singers, the St. Nicholas Choir, and that Christ Church Bell Choir. “Our choristers are those of school age, from 7 to 18,” shared Jonny Vaughn. And in the celebratory concert, he added, “We had about 40 choristers singing, 40 adults, including 10 alumni, and 20 St. Nicholas Choir members.”

Vaughn had praise for the “semi chorus of our high school seniors, that included solos sung by Annie Murphy (soprano) and Ethan Cooper (baritone) who were featured in the concluding Parry piece of ‘Hear my words, ye people.’”

Dr. Phillip Moore, Visiting Artist, leading the St. Cecelia Choir of Girls and Men and Teen Boys in “Walk With Me, Lord.” Photo by Joanne Bouknight.

Vaughn also cited this celebratory year as “a great year of renaissance for the boys choir post pandemic,” with choristers mostly signing on since last September – “average age nine years old!” Then there are those who have hung in for numerous years such as high school senior Evelyn Fitts, who is walking away this summer with fond memories.

“I’ve been in the choir for six years,” said Fitts, “and it’s been such a wonderful community of people and music. I will remember the fun warmups we do at rehearsal and all the amazing pieces we’ve learned over the years.” She’d loved those times, she said, “when a work sparks a story from one of our directors about an encounter with famous musicians – there was always a lot of laughter from the choir stalls.”

But continuing will be high school junior Luke Ovsag to start his third year singing with the Men and Teen Boys Choir and the Christ Church Singers. He speaks of having “truly enjoyed” his singing experience in the choirs, and of having made “lasting relationships.” He admitted to his hesitancy at first to join the choir, because he “wasn’t into the idea of attending church.” But his choir experience has given him “a change of heart.” He feels now, he shared, “that the church is my home, and the choir is my family.”

He tells of “favorite experiences” being “singing with [long serving] Ian Shearson, listening to Jonny Vaughn playing the organ, and the banter that we all have during and outside of rehearsal.” He can now “enjoy being able to speak with like-minded individuals about music.” Having had that hesitancy at first, he can now say, “with 100 percent certainty that joining the choirs at Christ Church Greenwich “was one of the best decisions I have ever made.”

To conclude, come this July the Christ Church choirs will journey to England to sing in Westminster Abbey for a week, singing six Evensongs and one Sunday sung Eucharist.

For those wanting more information about the Choirs they can visit Christ Church Music at music@christchurchgreenwich.org. And a note about this reporter, I have been a proud parishioner of Christ Church since 1975.

Jamie Hitel, Director of Music, leading the combined choirs in “Hear my words, ye people Photo by Joanne Bouknight.
Jonathan Vaughn, Assistant Music Director, leading the Choir of Men and Boys in “Rejoice in the Lord always.” Photo by Joanne Bouknight.
L to R: Jamie Hitel, Director of Music, Dr. Phillip Moore, Visiting Artist/Composer, Professor James O’Donnell, Visiting Artist-in-Residence and Jonathan Vaughn, Associate Director of Music. Photo by Joanne Bouknight.
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