Album of the Week, December 23, 2023
Sometimes you grow up with your favorite holiday albums, and sometimes you find them on eBay. Today’s record falls in the latter category, and it also marks the intersection of two of my obsessions, vinyl and choral music at the University of Virginia.
The Virginia Women’s Chorus was founded at the University of Virginia in 1974, a few years after undergraduate coeducation had finally reached Mr. Jefferson’s University, courtesy of a lawsuit. Women had performed in choruses at the University before then; graduate students appeared in the University Singers, and during the World War II years the music department had pulled together the Madrigal Group, which appeared several times between 1944 and 1946 and then disappeared entirely. The Women’s Chorus was founded to give women similar choral opportunities to those enjoyed by the Virginia Glee Club; their first director was James Dearing, and later Doug Hargrove; Katherine (KaeRenae) Mitchell, then a graduate student, worked alongside him from 1977 to 1981. She was then hired as a part time faculty member in 1982 and took on the independent directorship of the chorus.
It was under Mitchell’s direction that the group recorded this set, released in 1983, with assistance from harpist Caroline Gregg and faculty member and organist Yvaine Duisit. Mme. Duisit, who was born in France in 1930, attended the National Conservatory in Paris, where she studied piano with Armand Ferté and organ with Maurice Duruflé. She was a piano instructor at the University for years, playing the organ for the first Messiah Sing-In in 1968, and was also the organist at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Charlottesville until her resignation in 2006 shortly before her death.
But it is the student voices that greet us in the first side of Candlelight Christmas, performing Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols. As the album was not recorded as a “live in concert” performance (at least, not that I can tell from the audio), the chorus does not process during the opening, allowing the warm acoustic of St. Paul’s to reflect the a cappella performance. The Women’s Chorus is in fine voice throughout, performing with good balance and precise pitch; when the harp enters at the beginning of “Wolcom, Yule!,” it is precisely in the key in which the students finished the Processional. Speaking of harp, Gregg’s solo in the “Interlude” and her accompaniment alongside “In Freezing Winter Night” are meditative, moving, and chilling in equal turns. There are a great many moments of excitement alongside the meditative moments, and the climactic moments of “This Little Babe” and “Deo Gracias” are sung precisely in time and with a great propulsive energy.
Listen to the soloists throughout, who are credited collectively rather than with their individual movements: altos Margaret Callery and Patricia Smith, and sopranos Penny Pennington, Melody Sweeney, Abrielle Taylor-Levine and Sarah Mouzon. In particular, the alto soloist on “That Yonge Child” does a superb job with the difficult tonality and melodic line, and the soprano on “Balulalow” sings with a piercingly pure tone.
The second half of the record features an assortment of traditional carols accompanied by Duisit, including two Wassails, but opens with the Morales “O Magnum Mysterium.” With the Women’s Chorus capable of this level of polyphonic performance, alongside Donald Loach’s Virginia Glee Club of the era, the University must really have been an amazing place for Renaissance performance.
Also of note on this record are the two songs performed by the Virginia Belles. Like their counterparts the Virginia Gentlemen, the Belles were originally formed by Mitchell in 1977 as a small group a cappella subset of the Women’s Chorus before becoming a standalone group. Here they perform an “Angelus ad Virginem” by Williametta Spencer and the two Wassails.
The Virginia Women’s Chorus, like the Glee Club, ceased to be a curricular organization at UVA when the Music Department stopped sponsoring single-sex choruses in 1989. The Women’s Chorus was inactive for several years until a group of women (including my sister Esta Jarrett) reformed the group in 1994. Some of the group’s subsequent history is told in Ten Thousand Voices, my history of the Virginia Glee Club, which makes an excellent Christmas or New Years present for the Hoo or men’s glee club fan in your life. 🙂
There are no copies of this record online, so I’ve posted it here for your listening pleasure. Please enjoy! (I hope to post a better picture of the album soon … as soon as I figure out which shelf my copy is on…)
Postscript: thanks to KaeRenae Mitchell for providing a few factual corrections for this write-up.