When the stirring and complex Christmas suite “Angel Band” opens someday at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center or any of America’s great cathedrals for the performing arts, a small handful of worshippers in Batesburg-Leesville can proudly say, “We heard it here first.”
On Sunday night, Leesville United Methodist Church hosted the world premiere performance of “Angel Band,” a magical blend of classical, Americana and other musical styles that celebrates the biblical story of Christmas. The role of angels during the night Jesus Christ was born is the driving theme of this piece that is at once both foot-stompingly fun, emotionally rousing and reverential.
Composers Tim Sharp and Timothy Michael Powell were among those gathered under the church spire to experience “Angel Band” and its very first encounter with churchgoers and music fans.
“Most of us grew up with most of these texts,” said Dr. Sharp, who lives in Oklahoma and serves as executive director of the American Choral Directors Association. “What happens with all of us is that we hear these familiar songs over and over again until we really don’t hear them anymore. My thought was to put new clothes on them, put them into a fresh new setting, so people can hear them again.”
“Angel Band” features beautifully complex and at times unexpectedly whimsical arrangements of such revered Christmas favorites as “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” “Whilst Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night” and “Angels We Have Heard on High.” These eye-opening new arrangements are stitched together with readings from the biblical account of Christ’s birth in Luke 2, deeply spiritual responsive readings and prayers, and even the Lord’s Prayer.
“The idea was to combine different styles and to put a lot of little things in it that are all over Christmas,” Dr. Sharp said. “It’s a lot like a Christmas tree. Most people’s Christmas tree is a big mess of beautiful things. So, we quoted Vivaldi’s ‘Gloria’ and Handel’s ‘Hallelujah Chorus.’ We quoted some medieval cadences. If you listen closely, we quoted ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ and ‘Do You Hear What I Hear?’ There are a lot of little fragments, and we put things in minor chords and medieval modes to give it a fresh hearing.”
In the midst of it all, there are banjos, a hammered dulcimer and a concertina. During Sunday’s premiere, Dr. Sharp and Dr. Powell both played traditional bluegrass instruments alongside the classical chamber orchestra, complete with a harp.
“We wanted it to sound like our childhood, and at the same time be kind of fresh and to cross over from classical to popular, bluegrass, country and to use some texts that everybody might be familiar with but with some new tunes,” said Dr. Powell, who serves as director of choral activities at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta.
The premiere in Leesville was somewhat of a homecoming for Dr. Powell, a former resident of North Augusta. He earned his doctorate from the University of South Carolina and spent seven years teaching at Davidson Fine Arts School in Augusta. His wife Jennifer also is a USC graduate.
“Some of my closest friends are here in town, so this is very special for me. My only regret is that we couldn’t get to Shealy’s today for lunch because it was closed,” he said, chuckling.
Sunday’s premiere also was a very special night for the Rev. Bruce Sayre, pastor at Leesville United Methodist, who read the spoken-word, prayerful portions of “Angel Band.”
“I had hoped always to be in a church where this could happen, and finally I have gotten my Christmas wish for the past 44 years,” Pastor Sayre said.
In fact, it was Leesville UMC that commissioned the creation of “Angel Band.” In time, it came to be seen as a fitting tribute to Carrie Crose, a longtime member of the church choir who passed away in July 2019 after a brief battle with cancer.
“Carrie originally came from California with her sister Marty (Martha Crose Toal), and they have been members of this choir for the past number of years. While this was in process of being written, they decided, let’s do it in memory of Carrie,” Pastor Sayre said.
Patrons who gathered in the fellowship hall following the performance for a reception with the composers walked past a crèche that Ms. Crose had brought with her from San Francisco.
Dr. Joel Scraper, who serves as Leesville UMC’s director of music and is on the faculty at the University of South Carolina at Aiken, conducted the chamber orchestra and choir through Sunday’s performance.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity,” Dr. Scraper said. “Part of the reason we do this is because new music can be done anywhere. We wanted to present music that’s accessible to a wide variety of choirs. To be able to bring that to this church and to this town, I think it’s wonderful.”
Dr. Scraper, his USC Aiken music students and members of the choir rehearsed most of last Saturday to pull together Sunday’s performance. The Leesville UMC choir received their first editions of the music back in September and have practiced the suite since.
The USC Aiken orchestral students received their sheet music last week and had only three quick rehearsals with Dr. Scraper before Saturday’s marathon rehearsal. Members of the Cecilia Ensemble, an ad hoc troupe of professional singers from across the Southeast also directed by Dr. Scraper, joined the mix the day before the premiere and brought a rich, robust fullness to the final “Angel Band” sound.
All involved in the project hope to capture that magic in a bottle on the next stages of the journey for “Angel Band.”
On Monday, the composers, the conductor and most of the musicians and choir members traveled to the USC campus in Columbia to lay down a studio recording of the Christmas suite. Once the composers’ final sheet music is sent to their publisher in California and bound, the USC recording will be used to market “Angel Band” to other churches, universities and choral organizations who might want to license permission to present it to audiences across America and around the world.
Drs. Sharp and Powell both share a dream that perhaps next year or the year after, “Angel Band” will be performed at Carnegie Hall in New York on Thanksgiving weekend, when the Christmas season begins in earnest in America’s capital of culture.
Many locals who heard it first here say that moment, when it arrives, truly will be a proud one for Batesburg-Leesville.
“For it to be able to start here, I hope it is a source of pride for this church and for this community and for the people who were here as a part of this first service,” Dr. Scraper said.
Story by Tony Baughman / Published December 19, 2019