(The members of Virginia Chorale. Photo by Steve Budman)

By Jeff Maisey

If choral music has a high season, surely it’s the holidays.

Over the past thousand years, the most ancient of all music forms — vocal — has been composed for religious ceremonies as well as caroling and in modern culture for entertainment purposes such as Christmas albums, TV specials, and live performances at performing arts centers and atmospheric churches. 

Virginia Chorale’s upcoming holiday concert, “Sing We Nowell,” will honor of the 20th anniversary of NATO’s Command Transformation based in Norfolk by performing carols and holiday favorites by composers from member countries Spain, France, England (UK), Italy, Poland, Germany, and Latvia. 

The Chorale, which is in the midst of celebrating its 40th anniversary season, has scheduled two performances of this holiday concert: December 9 at Galilee Episcopal Church in Virginia Beach and December 10 at Norfolk’s Christ & St Luke’s Church. 

Virginia Chorale began with the mission of singing music of the Renaissance and Barque periods. At first, the group was called Norfolk Pro Musica. It’s initial performance was a holiday program. 

“We are paying tribute to that performance by including several selections that were on that program,” said Virginia Chorale Artistic Director, Chuck Woodward. 

Two of those all Renaissance pieces are Spanish — “Riu, Riu Chiu” and “E La Don Don” — and will open the performance. The third song, also Spanish, will be the beloved “O Magnum Mysterium” composed by Tomas Luis de Victoria. 

The original performance also included “Noe, Noe, Psallite” by French composer Jean Mouton, and this song will be featured after the intermission. 

“Sing We Nowell” became the title of the Chorale’s holiday program when Woodward joined the organization 12 years ago. 

“We keep the title consistent year to year, but each year the repertoire changes,” Woodward said.

Over the years as the reputation of the group grew the repertoire expanded to include all periods of vocal music. 

That modernization is reflected in the December performance, which will include “Northern Lights” by Eriks Esenvalds (born in 1977) of Latvia, Elizabeth Poston’s (1905-1987) “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree,” and “Alleluia, A New Work Is Hard To Come By” from English composer Peter Wishart (1921-1984).  

As for the salute to NATO, Woodward shared this: “We always like to acknowledge the great things about this community, and certainly, the fact that Norfolk is the headquarters of NATO’s Allied Command Transformation is significant.”

The music on the “Sing We Nowell” program this year will be familiar to those serving from NATO nations as well as their family members. 

“The fascinating NATO connection is that all of the composers on this program are from NATO member countries,” Woodward said. 

To enrich the program and speak to the collaborative nature of the Alliance, Virginia Chorale researched a Norwegian arrangement by Ola Gjielo of an English carol, “In The Bleak Midwinter.”

In that same spirit is a French Carole — “Il Est Ne Le Devin Enfant” — arranged by Englishman John Rutter.

“I love these cross-connections that bring a uniqueness to the program,” Woodward said. 

The holiday season also includes Hanukkah and the program features two pieces titled “Maoz Tzur.” One is the traditional song arranged by Samuel Adler, a German who escaped the Nazi roundup of Jews in the 1930s and moved with his family to America. The other was composed by Italian Benedetto Marcello but arranged by Max Helfman of Poland.  

Closing the program are several well-known English carols: “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” and “Joy To The World.”