Ask any choral musician what the busiest month of their year is, and odds are good that they’ll say December. From “Messiah” and the Holiday Pops to the many concerts by local community choirs every weekend throughout the holiday season, something attracts large audiences to choral music in the year’s longest nights and run-up to Christmas.
Why precisely is this? It’s tradition, to quote “Fiddler on the Roof.” But what makes this tradition so persistent?
“Socially, the holidays are the only time that we can be nice to each other,” joked Boston Gay Men’s Chorus assistant conductor Johnny Nichols Jr. in a phone interview. “That’s the only time that we really push peace, goodwill towards other humans, and giving back.”
Kevin Leong, the director of several community choirs in the Boston area, put it this way: “People connect and celebrate the season with music . . . and at that time of year, when there’s such good cheer in the air, it just feels like everyone is making music at once.”
This holiday season, for the first time in nearly three years, Boston’s vibrant community of amateur choral singers seems to be making music at once. The Concord Chorus, a long-running community chorus that Leong has directed since 2012, is preparing for its first winter concert (Dec. 10) since the pandemic began. The same is true of the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus, which is planning to launch its first full performance season since the shutdown with a holiday extravaganza, featuring four shows at Jordan Hall and one at Mechanics Hall in Worcester.
Gary Jackson, who sings tenor in the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus, said it felt “really weird” to jump into performing at this past summer’s Pride concert without having done a holiday show, because he feels like the fall rehearsals and winter concerts help strengthen the chorus as a community in every new season.
“I think [the holiday show] is not only one of our fastest-selling shows in general, but something we all look forward to because it is a big production,” said Jackson. “We put a lot of attention, focus, and resources into it.”
For most community choirs, that means Christmas comes to the rehearsal room starting in September. “It’s a little awkward at first, to be singing Christmas songs when it’s 70 degrees outside, but it’s par for the course and we enjoy it,” said Nichols, who is also preparing for a December concert with a community chorus on the North Shore.
Even if only some of a December concert’s repertoire is holiday themed, such events often include familiar festive tunes and sing-alongs, and Leong sees them as meaningful opportunities for choruses to connect with audience members. “That is one aspect of these kinds of concerts that we don’t normally see at other times of the year,” Leong said in a phone interview.
Preparing for Concord’s holiday concerts feels “scarily normal,” he said. It’s not completely normal, he clarified: All three choruses he leads are at around 75 percent of their pre-pandemic membership, and everyone is still singing masked. “Hopefully we won’t have to do that much longer. But it feels good. We’ve gotten back to doing something that we missed for a long time, and I think we didn’t know how much it meant to us until it was taken away.”
During the pre-vaccine days of December 2020, choral singing was unthinkable. Last year, a handful of community choirs were able to reconvene, rehearse, and perform in person, but this was strongly dependent on rehearsal space, choristers’ comfort with singing, and several other case-by-case variables. At this point last year, the Concord Chorus had not yet resumed in-person rehearsals. The Masterworks Chorale, which Leong also directs, met to sing together but did not hold its usual autumn concert or December “Messiah” sing-along. The Jameson Singers were able to rehearse and perform a holiday concert, and to gather safely; Leong and the singers bundled up and flung open the windows of their rehearsal room at Payson Park Church in Belmont.
“There were some evenings where I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, we cannot do this again in the winter,’ because it was freezing!” Leong said. “But [the singers] came, and they did that, because they love singing with each other. They would stand in the cold for 2½ hours under obviously not-ideal conditions to rehearse for that concert.”
Leong wasn’t sure what kind of audience would show up, and he was surprised when it was “almost packed,” he said. “We were received very warmly by the audience . . . and they were very understanding of our situation.”
Likewise, when the Zamir Chorale of Boston presented last year’s Hanukkah Happens concert, which was its first live event since the pandemic began, the reaction was “euphoria,” said director Joshua Jacobson over Zoom. The chorus had been planning a special celebration to mark its 30th annual Hanukkah concert — which was initially scheduled for 2020.
“In a sense, it was just postponed,” said Jacobson, an enthusiastic advocate for Jewish choral music, who founded Zamir in 1969. “But when we were there, after not singing for a year and a half and after audiences not hearing us for a year and a half, there was such an amazing feeling of finality and renewal.”
And it seems that feeling will persist this winter, especially for singers like Jackson who are performing their first holiday shows since 2019. “[The Boston Gay Men’s Chorus] is known for our very lively music, especially in our winter concerts,” said Jackson. “But in this concert, I think the music is a little more challenging, and the message is a lot deeper. . . . I think it has a different impact. It feels different, but in a good way.”