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Baton passes, poignantly

TAKE NOTE OF CHORUS’S NEW DIRECTOR

BY EDIE GROSS

Three and a half weeks before their annual holiday concert, The Spotsylvanians community chorus put the finishing touches on some key lyrics.

They polished up the ding, dong, ding, dong part in “Carol of the Bells.”

And the ahhhhs and hmmmms in “Angels’ Carol.”

And the all-important doo-bahs in “12 Days After Christmas.”

“We’re going to review the doo–bahs tonight so you can be confident in doo–bahing,” director Alexander Smith said with a chuckle.

Just for good measure, he also drilled the group on ooooos, boms and quite a few glorias during the evening rehearsal Nov. 14 at the Marshall Center.

Nearly 2 hours in, after a round of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” Smith glanced at the wall clock.

“One more song?” he asked, not really asking. “I know this is asking a lot, but, Lord have mercy, the concert’s in a couple of weeks.”

This is crunch time for The Spotsylvanians, who perform the free Candlelight Christmas Concert each year as a gift to the community.

Last year, they did so under the leadership of Stephen Burton, a longtime University of Mary Washington music professor who had ties to numerous local choirs and theater groups.

Three weeks after the concert, Burton, who had battled pancreatic cancer, passed away.

But his impact on the choir remains. His daughter, Barbara Powell, has stayed on as the chorus’s pianist.

His widow, Tammy Burton, joined the alto section and plays the piano with the group’s traveling choir, The Spotlighters.

And Smith, who was recruited by Burton and served as his assistant director last year, now conducts The Spotsylvanians.

Like Burton before him, he demands a lot.

“I push and push and push and push and push because I know what we’re capable of doing,” he told the group before persuading them to perform “Angels’ Carol” one last time.

“I’m going to continue to push so we can be that group that people go, ‘Oh my gosh, did you hear them?!’ ”

SINGERS DIG DEEP

To that end, the group is mixing it up a bit for this year’s Christmas concert, performing quite a few technically difficult songs and at least one spiritual designed to bring the crowd to its feet.

The chorus, in its ninth year, needs to constantly reinvent itself to keep the audience on its toes, Smith said.

“We’re going to dig deep and do challenging music,” he said. “As long as we continue to do that, people will be attracted to our concerts to see what’s the next big thing we’re going to do.”

He credits Powell, his accompanist, and assistant director Susan Dane, who also leads The Spotlighters, for being willing to push the singers as hard as he does.

Members of the group, who hail from all over the region, say Smith’s enthusiasm is contagious.

“He’s brought a lot out of us. It’s like old dogs, new tricks,” said Leslie Gluchowski, who joined the choir a year ago. “It’s so fun. It’s just a really good group of people who just want to sing.”

“He’s so joyful,” said longtime member Dot Cebula. “ ‘Energy, energy, energy.’ That’s his trademark line.”

In addition to directing The Spotsylvanians, Smith, a graduate of Culpeper High School and Virginia Commonwealth University, teaches music, sings in his church choir and performs at Riverside Center Dinner Theater.

That’s where he met Burton, who persuaded him last fall to join The Spotsylvanians as a tenor. As Burton’s health began to fail, Smith took on a greater leadership role.

His standards are high, he said, because the singers are capable of meeting them.

“I just don’t want us to be another run-of-the-mill community chorus,” he said. “I want this group to stand out. I want this choir to be the buzz around town.”

EXCELLENCE IS THE GOAL

At a recent rehearsal, when they weren’t singing, members scribbled in their music books at Smith’s direction, notes about rhythm, tempo, key changes and intensity.

“Tenors and basses, when you guys come in, don’t punch.”

“I want to make sure we’re singing that light and airy and as it says there, ‘joyfully.’ ”

“Short, short, short, short, loooong, loooong.”

“We crescendo, crescendo, crescendo. That crescendo lasts all the way to the end, OK? OK.”

Then Smith took the sopranos into a separate room, while Powell, seated at a keyboard, ran the rest of the group through the paces.

“Sing, sing, sing. Shout, shout, shout. Key change. Put it away,” she said, directing them through the spiritual “Goin’ to Bethlehem.”

In a side room, Smith urged his performers to sing powerfully enough to be heard over the piano.

“Find that breath deep down, lean on it and sing it,” he shouted.

“He’s so much into the music,” said soprano Pat Stello. “Because he’s so into the music, he makes you do whatever it takes.”

Inspiring his singers to push beyond their own personal boundaries is a must, Smith said.

“A lot of them say they’re tired when they get here, and by the time rehearsal is over, they’re energized,” he said. “I strongly believe that’s part of my job, keeping them interested and their energy up. Let’s run that music marathon.”

‘GOOD FOR ALL OF US’

Tammy Burton, Stephen Burton’s widow, said she’s been impressed with how much the chorus has grown over the last year under Smith’s leadership. In addition, she said, its members have been very supportive.

“It feels like I’m still a part of something Steve had his hands in,” she said. “It’s been good for all of us.”

Powell first started playing piano with the group while her father was the director. Staying on with Smith has been a good fit, she said.

The group has only gotten better over the last year, she said, something the audience at this year’s Candlelight Christmas Concert is bound to notice.

“Nobody wants to sound mediocre,” she said, “when excellent is on the table.”

SOUNDS OF THE SEASON

The Spotsylvanians community chorus will perform its annual free Christmas Candlelight Concert on Saturday, Dec. 10, at 8 p.m., and again on Sunday, Dec. 11, at 3 p.m., in the Spotsylvania Middle School auditorium, 8801 Courthouse Road.

Pre-concert entertainment featuring local students begins 30 minutes before each showtime. No tickets necessary.

For more information about the concert or the chorus, visit Spotsylvanians.com on the Web.

Edie Gross: 540/374-5428

egross@freelancestar.com

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