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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: ‘Christmas at the Chapel’ sanctifies season in Appleton

Critic At Large


Program cover.


In community performances on a Christmas theme, much is about the wrappings – the bows and brightly colored pizzazz. And then there is newVoices, a choir that looks inside the box.

That is one impression on hearing “Christmas at the Chapel: Light of the World” Saturday afternoon in Memorial Chapel of Lawrence University.

Led with care and expertise by artistic director Phillip A. Swan, 80 voices lifted to express deeper meanings of Christmas. The program was worshipful without being a church service.

Saturday afternoon’s concert was among three the choir presented. One was held Dec. 13 at St. Francis Xavier Cathedral in Green Bay. Two were held Saturday in Memorial Chapel.

Early in the concert, the choir performed a cappella. The high quality of the voices carried well in the fine acoustics of the chapel, in which such lustrous and historic artists as Artur Rubenstein, Yo-Yo Ma and Marion Anderson have performed over 100-plus years.

Phillip A. Swan places his male and female singers among one another, rather than grouping them. The result is a knitted effect in the sound.

He conducts very precisely. The music was very precise, dating from the 13th century to the contemporary.

Nothing was frivolous. Nothing cute.

There were songs of joy, happiness and celebration – but they were from inside the box, not a frilly, decorative cover.

Five times the audience was asked to stand and join in a familiar carol.

The choir sang all the hard stuff – sometimes in Latin – sometimes with piano, violin and/or electric bass woven into the layers and layers of the finest aural fabric.

Singers in this choir are devoted to serious and artistic singing, often material that has served the test of time.

Saturday afternoon, more than a handful of singers sang with smiles as they transported into the glories of the music.

Along with joining in the “Hallelujah Chorus,” organist Katherine Handford offered selections that started each half of the concert. “I Saw Three Ships” got a special rise from the audience for its buoyant energy.

To close the concert, all the lights in the chapel were dimmed. Standing out were the lighted manger image on the stage and the web of white lights spanning the front of the balcony. Most of the singers were spread along the aisles and in a loop toward the rear of the stage. These singers held lighted (electric) candles. Others on stage held handbells, an added effect as the whole hall sang “Silent Night.” To close, Phillip A. Swan simply said, “Merry Christmas.”


Program: “Christmas at the Chapel: Light of the World”

Phillip A. Swan, artistic director and conductor

Dan Van Sickle, associate conductor*

Dan Dinkler, piano

Emily Hauer, violin

Part I

“Wie schon leuchtet der Morgenstern (How lovely shines the morning star)” – Dieterich Buxtehude

    Katherine Handford, organ

“Break forth, O beauteous heav’nly light” – Johann Sebastian Bach

“Lux Aurumque” – Eric Whitacre

   Vocal soloists: Emily Rodrigue, Toni Wejola

“O Gladsome Light” – Alexander Gertchaninov

“Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” – audience carol

“O Lux Beatissima” – Howard Helvey

“What Is This Light?” – Eric William Barnum

“O Nata Lux” – Victoria Davison, Rudy Lupinski

“Angels from Realms of Glory” – audience carol

“LUX: The Dawn from on High” – Dan Forrest

   “Gloria in Excelsis”

   “Creator of the Stars of Night”

      Vocal soloists: Dan Van Sickle, Matt Kierzek, Sarah Oakley, Leah Armstrong, Elizabeth Van Sickle, Erica Hamilton, Toni Weijola

Part II

“I Saw Three Ships” – arranged by Richard Elliott

   Katherine Handford, organ; two handbell players

“The Lord is My Light” – Hank Beebe

“Behold the Star”* – William L. Dawson

   Vocal soloists: Leah Armstrong, Matt Kierzek, Toni Weijola

“True Light”* – Keith Hampton

   Vocal soloists: Emily Rodrigue, Erica Hamilton, Sara Phelps

“O Little Town of Bethlehem” – audience carol

“Gloria with Lux Venit” – Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith, arranged by David Hamilton

   Vocal soloists: Paul Coonen, Matt Kierzek, Joe Becher

“I Have Seen the Light” – Chris Machen, arranged by Robert Sterling

   Vocal soloists: Paul Coonen, Jennifer Leahy, Jo Guinn, Kyle Brauer

“Hallelujah Chorus” from “Messiah” – George Frideric Handel

“Joyful, Joyful, We Adore You” – audience carol

“Brightest and Best”* – arranged by Shawn Kirchner

“All Praise to Thee” – Elaine Hagenberg

“Peace, Peace” – Rick and Sylvia Powell, arranged by Fred Bock

“Silent Night” – choir/audience carol

    With handbell choir


NEXT: “Masterworks,” Feb. 8.

VENUE: Erected in 1918, Lawrence Memorial Chapel features Classical Revival architecture – Corinthian columns, temple shape and white exterior to imitate marble on ancient Greek buildings – though with a Christian church-influenced steeple. Located at 510 E. College Ave., the chapel is one of the focal buildings on campus. It looks majestic and important. The interior seats 1,184 in a soft rectangle. Central in the performance area is the 33-foot-tall organ. Built by John Brombaugh of Eugene, Oregon, the 41-stop instrument stands at the back of the stage in a free-standing, elaborately carved wooden case atop a three-step platform. The fumed-oak case is trimmed in gold leaf, red and Lawrence blue. Eight large stained-glass windows are set in spaces topped by curved arches with keystones, with those spaces flanked by pairs of windows set in rectangular spaces with columns and squared arches. The ceiling is a field of octagons in which lighting or ornate designs, flower like and straight-angle geometric, are placed. The original cost of the chapel was $125,000 ($2.1 million in 2019).

THE PEOPLE: The chapel was built in the memory of Myra Goodwin Plantz (1856-1914) and Helen Fairfield Naylor (1867-1918) and Lawrentians killed in World War I. Myra Plantz was the wife of Samuel Plantz, president of Lawrence College from 1894-1924. The daughter of a minister, she wrote hymns, including “Songs for Quiet Hours,” published posthumously by The Methodist Book Concern. Myra Plantz died of appendicitis and is buried in Riverside Cemetery in Appleton. Helen Naylor was the wife of the Rev. Wilson S. Naylor, professor of biblical literature at Lawrence. “In her brief residence at Appleton,” an item in The Christian Advocate says, “she had exerted a remarkable influence upon the life of the students by her unusual social and spiritual gifts.” A scholarship was founded in her name, with $1,000 the seed money, according to The Christian Advocate.

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