Madrigal Choir “Lessons and Carols” is more than a concert

The Madrigal Choir of Binghamton just offered its 32d season of  “Lessons and Carols for Christmas.” This is both a concert and a worship service, the sacred and secular readings and classical and contemporary anthems and familiar Christmas carols recounting the story of the coming of Messiah.

Sitting in the choir looking out over the audience, one can see family, friends and neighbors. Some have come for the enjoyment of the music, others as an act of seasonal devotion, from within this parish or some other across town. For still others, this is the closest they will ever come to being churchgoers. For all these groups, and particularly the last described, Artistic Director Anne Boyer Cotten says it’s not just about how well we sing the music but about how well we tell the story.

For a singer’s perspective, click on “read the rest of the story.”We pick up Eleanor Farjeon’s People Look East, set to an old French folk tune.  “Imagine you’re telling the story to a little child,” Anne suggests.  Our tone lightens and brightens. “That’s it,” she says.

On yester night I saw a sight, a star as bright as day … .  “You’ve seen an awesome sight; you should be hushed yet excited,” Anne coaches as we prepare composer G.H. Salter’s Lullay, lullay.

Of Philip Moore’s Our Lady and Child  she says, “Think about the words and to whom they’re addressed.  You’re singing this song to the mother of Jesus.  Sing it with tenderness and reverence.”

It’s a challenge to prepare so much music – nearly two dozen pieces and a repertoire that changes each year – in four weeks.  Many of the professional musicians in the Madrigal Choir (music educators, church choir directors and professionally trained singers) are busy with additional seasonal music projects. Then there are those of us who are what our Web site calls “accomplished amateurs” – our homework is extra long. A couple of us use digital voice recorders to record the rehearsals, then edit the files and use the best for karaoke practice.  (Windows Media Player lets you slow down the tempo without changing the pitch, a handy tool for learning tough passages, especially if you’re not a pianist.)

The tempo notation on Steven Sametz’s Gaudetefurioso – gives a hint of its challenge. It’s a fast-paced piece that never rests, with divisi in all parts, repeated figures with subtle changes in notes and constantly changing time signatures – 5/8, 3/4, 2/4, 7/8, 6/8.  When the Madrigal Choir last sang this piece several years ago, baritone Paul Dura mentioned it to composer Sametz, under whose direction Paul had sung in his college years at Lehigh University (Bethlehem Pa.). Sametz was impressed: “That’s a hard piece.” 

This year, another of Sametz’s compositions, an arrangement of Wondrous Love, added handbells (five members of the Ogden Bellaires from Ogden Hillcrest United Methodist Church). 

It’s a joy to sing in the beautiful sanctuary of Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Church (formerly St. Ann’s) on Prospect Street in Binghamton. The barrel vault nave and domed chancel act as natural sound boards to reflect sound. It is a perfect space for sacred a cappella music, adding a long reverberation for a cathedral effect. This works equally impressively for the E.M. Skinner organ, from which guest organist Peter Browne (from Trinity Memorial Episcopal Church in Binghamton) coaxed tender flute and reed sounds as well as thundering pedals. The organ accompanied choir and congregation in singing three familiar carols, descants for two of them floating angelically over the sanctuary. 

For both performances last weekend, the audience was almost instinctively respectful, not wanting to interrupt the transcendent blending of sacred music and sacred space, applauding only following Peter Browne’s final organ piece, and at the conclusion of the concert.

Artistic Director Anne Boyer Cotten makes no secret of the fact that “Lessons and Carols”  is her very favorite concert of the year. And next year it will be her last Madrigal Choir concert to conduct, as she prepares to retire from the select group she created and will have led for 33 seasons. 

For more information on the Madrigal Choir of Binghamton, including the remaining concert schedule and the search process for a new artistic director, visit

 — Submitted by Dave Schriber, a.k.a. CyberBassDave,

a member of the Madrigal Choir of Binghamton

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