The neo-gothic structure of the nave at Westminster with its’ prominent, stain-glassed Te Deum window (made by Tiffany Studios) is the idyllic setting for this candlelit service. Entering the sanctuary on Christmas Eve one can see the central focus of the dramatic display of Christmas poinsettias, striking picture of Madonna and child, and the gorgeous crystal star that highlight the chancel area. The live greenery and red ribbons are classic, understated decorations that, along with all of the candles, set the stage for a meaningful evening of worship.
The prelude music for the service included the massive Casavant organ, hand bell choirs, flute and piano. Guest artists Claudia Hunter and Steven Hunter provided exquisite renderings of music for flute and piano by Vivaldi and Bach. Passages of great fioritura and broad, expansive phrasing marked these rapid selections. The Andante, Presto, and Allegro from the Sonata for Flute in C Major were particularly notable for their beauty and bravura. Also as part of the forty-minute prelude, both the senior high and junior high hand bell choirs excelled in the presentation of familiar carols in fresh and delightful arrangements. Organist John Neely began the evening with a stirring flourish playing one of his signature pieces the Carillon de Westminster by Louis Vierne. Mr. Neely had many remarkable moments throughout the evening, but his reading of the Vierne shook the house as the great Casavant spoke in majestic tones, and as he proved once again that he is an artist totally in command of the instrument when he is at the console in the choir loft.
In an evening of regal moments, one chill producing, awe-inspiring episode is always the delicate flash of silence prior to the beginning of the traditional and stately choral processional, “Masters in this Hall.” As I write this description, I am overcome by chills again as I hear, in my mind’s ear, the sound in the distance of the men of the choir beginning the first haunting notes of this well-known French Carol. The hush over the congregation allows one to experience each phrase of this glorious choral introit as the choir members begin in the narthex at the rear of the nave and process down the long center aisle to take their places high in the loft for the service. Beginning a cappella, joined by hand bell ensemble, and finally the splendor of the organ, this moving processional is an incredible choral call to worship. This processional builds into an artistic culmination reminiscent of high Anglican worship in one of Europe’s finest cathedrals. In a moment of creative brilliance, the four ringers in the accompanying bell ensemble recess out the center aisle ringing their percussive ostinato, rung on eight Dutch hand bells, until they no longer can be heard in the distance. The sounds of these unique bells, which produce a curious overtone series, is both poignant and wraithlike, and creates a singular moment of calm reflection following the soaring forte of the processional. In its astonishing simplicity, this brief instant of music moving ever forward and off into the distance is evocative of the most poignant images of the birth of Jesus, and recreates the miraculous glow surrounding the mystery and wonderment of every Christmas Eve.
With the choir in place, the service continued with a brisk singing of the first and oldest Christmas Carol: “O Come, All Ye Faithful” using the Willcocks descant for the second and concluding verse. With the choir and congregation singing vigorously, this is some of the finest congregational singing I have ever experienced.
The Christmas in the Cathedral service then follows in prototype of scripture, anthems, and carol singing alternatively as the traditional Christmas story unfolds until the sermon. Each of the distinguished pastoral staff members relate the Christmas story from prophecy to incarnation in a series of memorized monologues that are based upon scripture and delivered in a theatrical manner. The interspersing blend of scripture and music is compelling theater directing one’s attention to worship of the almighty as parishioners are led once again through the drama and magnificence of the beloved Christmas story. The old familiar words of the story ring out over the sanctuary as each Pastor furthers this oldest and most traditional story of the Christian faith.
During this portion of the service, the Westminster Choir presented several stunning, alluring, and glittering anthems. George Frederick Handel’s “For Unto Us A Child Is Born” was a moment of shear joy. Mr. Neely moved his choir at an efficient pace that would have certainly thrilled Mr. Handel himself. This experienced choir utilized every interpretive and expressive device available while achieving miraculous results. Full of shading and nuance, this rendition of a favorite anthem from Handel’s Messiah was truly breath taking and demonstrated a perfect match of choir and organist in balanced unity.
A refreshing arrangement of the French tune, “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” was also moving in its’ delivery of text and its’ dramatic and powerful conclusion. A pair of John Rutter anthems, “Love Came Down at Christmas,” and “Candlelight Carol,” added luster to the service with hushed, controlled tones in a florid display of choral virtuosity. Melodic lines soared and voices blended in an exquisite unity of luxurious tone. All of the voices sounded comfortable as various choral timbres and colors were utilized to illuminate each anthem and text. The pinnacle of the choral art was achieved in a performance of the Peter Warlock composition “Bethlehem Down.” In this moment of pure worship, the Westminster Choir demonstrated that they are capable of mastering an oratorio chorus in all its fullness and radiance; yet still provide the ethereal luminosity in an anthem such as “Bethlehem Down.” These mesmerizing sounds, produced by a choir of the first degree, are unique and exceptional moments of traditional worship in which singular focus is brought to the Christ of Christmas.
More singing of carols followed the moving homily by the Reverend Dr. George H. McConnel. The carol singing, led by Mr. Neely, involves singing one verse of several carols with interludes being improvised at the organ. Clearly, the carol singing is enjoyed by all, and is greatly enhanced by the artistry and dynamic leadership of John Neely. His dazzling improvisations, each with distinct registrations that explore the outer limits of this great Casavant organ, are rousing and uplifting.
The entire Sanctuary is reduced to only candle light for the final carol: “Silent Night.” Beth Hill, one of the many eminent soloists sang a gorgeous descant as the choir and congregation hum the second verse. The descant is sung from the balcony with the choir surrounding the congregation on the floor. John Neely answers the second and final verse with an antiphon of chimes, and another Christmas in The Cathedral Service is brought to a whispered conclusion.
Mr. Neely’s concluding voluntary at the organ, Flourish on Joy To The World, provided a fitting and excellent conclusion to this wonderful service.
The only criticism is that true worship that is this superb, thrilling, and exhilarating is all too infrequent, and ends too quickly. Merry Christmas, and thank you to John Neely, the Westminster Choir, and all of the musicians and staff at Dayton Westminster Church.
Music participants: Junior High Hand Bell Choir (grades 7 and 8; Brent Manley, Director)-Senior High Hand Bell Choir (grades 9-12; Jerry Taylor, Director)-Flute: Claudia Hunter-Piano: Steven Hunter-Westminster Choir Soloists: Donna Reece, Faye Seifritt, Brent Manley, Kathy Clark, Deborah Martin, Tom Lehmann, Rachel Andrew Boezi, Beth Hill. Flute: Marcia Wood-Percussion Brent Manley and Christi Wilson-John Neely is Organist-Director.