October 6, 2020 - The Bucks County Choral Society and Philadelphia Heritage Chorale are producing a video entitled Christmas together in a time of separation intended to be shared widely through their respective communities and social media channels.
The two choirs, directed by longtime friends and colleagues Dr. Thomas Lloyd and Dr. J. Donald Dumpson, respectively, had scheduled a shared concert in Doylestown and Philadelphia for June 2021 but realized that it would likely need to be postponed. While many choirs have produced virtual-choir videos where singers record solo videos from their homes in isolation to be joined together by video producers at the computer in the now-familiar "Hollywood Squares" format, Dr. Lloyd explained they are doing something different:
"We want to share the sound of a larger group of singers seen actually singing in person together, though safely, outdoors, with masks and social distancing. We hope the simplicity of familiar Christmas carols that can be sung well by our choirs without the need of in-person rehearsals can recreate some of the special qualities our Christmas programs offer both singers and audiences.”
The Choral Society regularly fills Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Doylestown for its annual programs with handbells, brass, and guest artists, while the Heritage Chorale's annual "Soulful Christmas" concerts at Verizon Hall are a highlight of Philadelphia's concert season.
The two conductors met in Doylestown one evening in August with Philadelphia film producer Rich Tolsma and singers from both choirs to see if masked and separated singing outdoors could be recorded with sufficient audio and video quality. Using just individual cell phones to test-record a quartet of singers, they were pleasantly surprised at the warmth of the sound, and how with some additional portable lighting, singing at night might suggest the atmosphere of Christmas in the middle of October.
For the opening candlelight procession and closing "Silent Night," forty singers from each choir will be seen and heard singing the same carols together through the editing artistry of Tolsma and his post-production crew. Out of safety considerations that favor minimizing the amount of time groups spend together even when outdoors, the rest of the program will alternate between carols sung by octets from each choir, soloists from each choir, and the Philadelphia Bronze Handbell Choir, directed by Hyosang Park, recorded indoors with masks and distancing. “Our concert has been crafted with the well-being of the participants paramount in our production considerations” expressed Dr. Dumpson.
This variety will also allow each choir to sing Christmas carols in their distinctive styles, with Dr. Dumpson’s Heritage Chorale bringing an electronic keyboard outside for several selections. The Choral Society will also feature two of its annual high school Voices of the Future competition winners as soloists, and one octet combining members of one of their family of Singing for Seniors choirs with Choral Society Singers, filmed at Pine Run Retirement Community. There will also be one "mixed" octet, made up of four singers from each choir, who will sing together in front of the same camera - one carol in Doylestown, and another in Philadelphia.
The full choirs and the mixed octet will also get together for Zoom meetings in advance of the October 21 filming in Doylestown and the next day in Philadelphia. These meetings were planned not only to coordinate music cues, but to have a chance to learn from each other the different ways the singers and their communities are coping in this time of isolation and awakening. This will help maintain their mission of crossing cultural boundaries of race through singing, especially at a time of renewed racial tension, and the intensified hope for a growing consensus around genuine racial justice reform. This mission has also made safety even more of a priority because of the disproportionate degree to which the coronavirus pandemic has affected black and brown communities in Philadelphia and around the nation.
In the end, both choirs acknowledge that the project may have to bow to the importance of the health of their singers and the broader community. But their hope is that through a moment of coming together and singing they might be able to offer a bit of hope to people living through an anxious time.