Arts & Culture

With lessons and carols, tradition lives on

Staff Writer
Sunday, December 4, 2011

Sayles Hall was transformed last night into a hub of holiday cheer for the University’s 95th annual Service of Lessons and Carols. A traditional Christmas celebration that rose to prominence in the early 20th century at King’s College of Cambridge University, Lessons and Carols began at Brown in 1917 and has become a staple of the holiday season on campus.

The service, coordinated by the Office of the Chaplains and Religious Life, was split between seven “lessons” — biblical passages read by students and administrators — and numerous anthems and carols sung by both the University Chorus and the audience. The Brown Brass Quintet joined University Organist Mark Steinbach in performing a melodious prelude, Jacob Gallus’ “Duo Seraphim.” For Steinbach, who has performed at the Lessons and Carols service since coming to Brown in 1993, the tradition is special because it brings together students, faculty, alums and local residents.

“It involves the entire University community,” Steinbach said, adding that he enjoys the chance to collaborate with the chaplain’s office and the Chorus in creating the service. Though the service has a clearly defined shape each year, with each lesson and musical piece chronologically leading to Jesus’ birth, Steinbach said he and the other performers make an effort to add new elements. “Each year, there’s a little bit of a twist,” he said.

The service’s lead organizer, Janet Cooper Nelson, University chaplain, called Lessons and Carols a “stress-reliever” for students before exams.

Cooper Nelson also said the service draws a substantial number of alums, including one Brunonian who makes the drive from Washington, D.C., each year to attend. The financial offertory collected during Lessons and Carols goes to a charity selected by the chaplain’s office — this year, Crossroads Rhode Island, the largest homeless shelter network in the state, was the recipient of the collection. Cooper Nelson called this a crucial element of the service, saying many alums who cannot attend still give to the charity.

The chorus made ready use of Sayles’ acoustics, filling the cavernous space with rousing renditions of traditional Latin anthems in which each syllable was strung out for maximum effect. From the 14th century opening chant “Veni, Veni, Emmanuel” to the more contemporary anthem “Today the Virgin” composed by John Tavener, the Chorus stirred the audience with its range of talent. Their success comes as no surprise to Louis Frederick Jodry, director of choral activities and senior lecturer in music.

“The quality of singers on Brown’s campus has gone up exponentially,” Jodry said, saying this year’s chorus is one of the best he has trained since coming to campus in 1991.

Chorus member Nash Rochman ’13 said he felt the performance went well, and he enjoyed the range of anthems the group performed.

“We were all very pleased with the selection,” Rochman said. “(Jodry) thinks highly of us as a chorus and we think highly of him.”

Administrators who read lessons included President Ruth Simmons, Edward Wing, dean of medicine and biological sciences, Mary Grace Almandrez, director of the Third World Center and assistant dean of the College, David Sherry, chief information security officer, and J. Allen Ward, senior associate dean for student life. Cooper Nelson said the two students who read lessons, Brandon Broome ’12 and Katherine Mead ’12, were chosen based on their contribution to the Imani Jubilee and Catholic communities, respectively.

Another performance highlight was Hans Leo Hassler’s choral anthem “Verbum Caro Factum Est,” which featured a student conductor, Bridget Nixon ’14, whom Jodry had selected to guide the Chorus. Nixon, who has been studying conducting this year, said she was thankful to have a leading role in the Lessons and Carols service.”It exposes everyone listening to all the talents Brown students have,” she said.

The collective rendition of “Silent Night” reinforced the community feeling as audience members lit their candles and joined the Chorus in singing the classic carol, while the chandeliers of Sayles were dimmed to create a feeling of hallowed intimacy similar to a medieval cathedral.

With a blend of the old and the new, this year’s Lessons and Carols turned out to be a true delight for the performers and audience alike, transporting those who listened to Steinbach’s organ accompaniments and the Chorus’ inspiring anthems back through the ages to an earlier era at Brown.

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