WARREN, NJ – Hundreds of instrumental music students at Watchung Hills Regional High School (WHRHS) filled the stage at the school’s Performing Arts Center (PAC), Wednesday, Dec. 16, for the annual Instrumental Winter Concert, and hundreds more choral music students filled the stage of an equally filled PAC two nights later, on Friday, Dec. 18, for the annual Winter Vocal Concert.
At the Instrumental Concert, family, friends, students, teachers, Board of Education members and the general public filled the orchestra and balcony seats at the PAC to hear 11 compositions. Some of the compositions were familiar and all-time seasonal favorites. Others showed student mastery of exploratory and intriguing new music. They heard performances by a 32-member string orchestra, a 38-member concert band, a 60-member wind ensemble and a symphonic band that included student musicians from the “smaller” groups.
Instrumental Music Conductor is Minesh Shah. Vocal Music Conductor is Angela DiIorio Bird.
Two nights later as a preliminary song to begin the Vocal Concert, singers lined the aisles and others were on the stage in the PAC, as the house lights were lowered. Singers bore hand-held faux candle lights, as faculty and students read statements of purpose. They declared that the organizing theme of the concert was intended to celebrate the spirit of the holiday season: Peace, love, happiness, and joy.
The singers then launched into a dramatic and touching rendition of “This Little Light of Mine, I’m Gonna Make It Shine,” the familiar Gospel children’s song with lyrics by Avis Burgeson Christiansen and melody by Harry Dixon Loes.
The vocal concert that followed included two songs performed by the 108-member Chorus, four songs performed by the 122-member Advanced Chorus, five songs performed by various smaller-sized ensembles of singers, two songs performed by senior soloists, and three songs performed by the combined chorus that included singers from both the Chorus and Advanced Chorus.
By the end of each concert, the “Symphony Band” and the “Combined Chorus,” respectively, filled every corner of the wide and deep PAC stage, and the audiences at both concerts gave the students and their directors, Shah and DiIorio Bird, rousing ovations.
At the instrumental concert, some of the ambitious new pieces included two performed by the Concert band, “Snakes” by composer Thomas C. Duffy, and “A Zillion Nickels,” by composer Samuel Hazo.
The String Orchestra opened the concert with the dramatic and haunting theme from the popular Netflix series, “House of Cards,” by Jeff Beal. The orchestra then explored three excerpts from the timeless seasonal classic, “The Nutcracker,” by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. The String Orchestra concluded its performance with a contemporary piece with classic themes, “And The Mountains Echoed: Gloria,” by Robert Longfield, who is an award-winning band and orchestra director at Miami Palmetto Senior High School, Miami, Fla.
Later, the Wind Ensemble performed: “Variations on a Korean Folk Song,” by John Barnes Chance; “Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus,” by Robert W. Smith; and “Arabesque,” by Samuel Hazo.
The Symphonic Band, including musicians from the concert band and wind ensemble, performed: “Centaph Composed,” by Jack Stamp; “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” by Johan Sebastian Bach; and “A Christmas Festival,” by Leroy Anderson.
During the musical presentation of “Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus,” Choral Director DiIorio Bird read the letter written in 1897 by Virginia O’Hanlon (1889-1971) of New York City to the editor of the New York Sun newspaper, wondering if there really is a Santa Claus. DiIorio Bird’s husband, WHRHS Science Teacher Carl Bird, presented the newspaper’s response, an editorial written by editor Francis Parcellus Church. The editorial first appeared in the New York Sun on Sept. 21, 1897. The iconic phrase, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,” comes from the editorial, which is thought to be the most reprinted newspaper editorial in the world. The legend also formed the basis for the classic 1947 film, “Miracle on 34th Street,” and numerous other iterations of the legend in movies, plays, musical compositions, not to mention the iconic store windows at Macy’s Department Store on 34th Street during the Christmas Season.
“The instrumental concert selections provided students with significant learning opportunities for budding musicians,” said Shah. “The compositions provided opportunities for everyone to make significant contributions to the whole piece. Among the notable performances were percussion elements that were bold and varied. Not only did they keep time, they created percussive music. Plus, we performed some seasonal favorites, including Tchaikovsky, Bach and Anderson.”
Following the dramatic preliminary performance of “This Little Light Of Mine,” the Chorus sang, “Gabi Gabi,” a South African praise song, arranged by William C. Powell; and “Ose Shalom (The One Who Makes Peace),” a traditional Hebrew piece with music by John Leavitt.
Senior Lauren Duffy sang “I Hope You Dance,” by Lee Ann Womack, which was a hit in 2000. Duffy said the song was a favorite of her Dad. She sang accompanied by recorded music for the song that was faithful to the performance by Womack.
The Advanced Chorus sang: “Betelehemu,” A Nigerian Christmas Song, by Via Olatunji and Wendell Whalum; “Cantique Noel (O Holy Night)” by Adolphe Adam; “Auld Lang Syne,” with an arrangement by James Gossler; and “Glory,” by John Legend and Common, from the 2014 movie, “Selma.” The song was accompanied by a slide show of photos from the movie and historic news footage from the 1960s Civil Rights “March to Selma.” Students updated the presentation, by adding solo parts in Rap style.
Senior Soloist Anna Paterson, and her younger sister, Katherine Paterson, both members of the Advanced Chorus, sang “Some Things Are Meant To Be.” The song is from the 2005 Broadway musical, “Little Women.” In the musical, the song is sung by the fictional sisters, Beth and Jo March, characters from the novel, “Little Women,” the most famous novel written by American writer Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888).
Five ensembles of a variety of sizes and configurations of soloists and choruses, performed the following songs: “Happy Days Are Here Again/Get Happy,” with music by Milton Ager and Harold Arlen, and arrangement by Philip Kern. The songs were sung most famously by Judy Garland (1922-1969) and Barbra Streisand. They also performed: “Grown-Up Christmas List,” words and music by David Foster and Linda Thompson-Jenner; the 2014 composition, “Text Me Merry Christmas,” by David Javerbaum and Adam Schlesinger, originally performed by Kristen Bell and the band, “Straight No Chaser;” “The Boars Head Carol,” a traditional Christmas Carol; and “White Christmas,” by Irving Berlin, arranged by Audrey Snyder. It is an arrangement reminiscent of the style of the African-American Jazz vocal group, The Mills Brothers (1928-1982).
The concert concluded with combined choirs filling the stage, to sing: “What The World Needs Now Is Love,” by Hal David and Burt Bacharach; “Santa Clause is Comin’ to Town,” by Haven Gillespie and J. Fred Coots, arranged by Jay Althouse; and the finale, “We Are The World 25 for Haiti,” by Michael Jackson and Lionel Ritchie.
The finale included a video showing Advanced Chorus Member Laura Silva teaching elementary school students in Haiti the refrain of the iconic 1985 song, “We Are The World.” In the video, the Haitian students provide an enthusiastic performance. As is a tradition at the WHRHS winter and spring vocal concerts, local middle school chorus members and WHRHS chorus alumni in the audience were invited to come up on stage, and audience members were invited to participate, too, to help close the show.
Radio Show Victory
The same arrangement of “Santa Clause is Comin’ to Town” was used most famously by New Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band, a hit that receives heavy national radio play every Christmas Season. A special ensemble of WHRHS choral music student performed this song this year for the Christmas Choir Music Contest organized by radio station, New Jersey 101.5. For that performance, WHRHS won the contest’s High School Division.
The winner was announced over the air on Monday, Dec. 21, three days after the Winter Vocal Concert. The contest was a seasonal feature of the radio station’s mid-day program, the “Dennis and Judi” Show. Choruses of the schools that entered the contest, including Watchung Hills, each sang their song, one per day. As with the schools that won the two other school divisions, Franklin School, Westfield, in the Elementary School Division, and Marlboro Middle School, Marlboro Township, in the Middle School Division, WHRHS won a prize of $1,000.