By CHERIL VERNON
What began 10 years ago with a small church choir has evolved and morphed over the past decade into a group of some 90 vocalists accompanied by a 20-member orchestra, who together will present an annual Christmas concert to the community.
Celebrating its 10th anniversary, the Anderson County Community Choir and Orchestra will perform its 2013 show “Sounds of Christmas” on Sunday, Dec. 15 at the Palestine High School Auditorium. Because of seating, and to accommodate demand, the choir now gives two concerts each Christmas season, at 2 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.
This will be PHS sophomore Jaime Pena's second year to play the flute in the orchestra.
“I enjoy it because I get to hear the sounds of all of the instruments and voices together, which makes the perfect blend of music,” Pena said during a rehearsal on Monday.
The organization’s first public concert was on Easter in 2003 at Grace United Methodist Church, then in its former home on Kolstad Street. Over the ensuing years, as the number of performers grew, the need for larger accommodations prompted the move from the church to the Museum for East Texas Culture, and later to the Palestine Civic Center. Last year, the choir and orchestra performed in the newly completed auditorium of the Palestine High School for the first time. Rhonda Herrington has directed the choir and orchestra since the group's inception.
Sponsored and supported by Grace UMC from its beginning, the performers today represent multiple churches and organizations from across the region.
The 2013 program includes selections from the first decade of concerts, ranging from the familiar sounds of “Silent Night” to the stand-up thrill of Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus.”
“Some of the music reaches back in time to the earliest centuries of Christian observances; some is as recent as the last decade. But all embody the familiar Sounds of Christmas that will almost immediately evoke memories of Christmas past,” local historian Jack Selden said.
The live orchestra – something quite rare in the world of choirs — adds a special dimension to the choir’s performances.
“As with the choir members, the talented musicians of the orchestra welcome the opportunity to be a part of this large and versatile ensemble of performers,” Selden said. “And for members of the listening public, the program by the Anderson County Choir and Orchestra is an incredible treat for music lovers of all generations. It will kindle your Christmas spirit and fill your heart with song. It is something you should not miss.”
During their weekly rehearsal on Monday, the choir and orchestra who braved the cold, wet weather to attend practiced several Christmas favorites ranging from “Joy to the World,” Do You Hear What I Hear?” “Mary, Did You know?” “O Come All Ye Faithful” and more.
Choir member Angela Haigh has been with the group since 2006 or 2007.
“I love singing. I have met lot of people and enjoy sharing the music with the community,” Haigh said after the rehearsal.
Choir member Linda LeMacks has been with the group for all 10 years.
“I love to sing — I've been singing in a choir since I was 12 years old. This is a great bunch of folks,” LeMacks said. “I enjoy the Christmas season and the reason for the season and sharing it with those who attend our concerts.”
Choir member Tony Rohne also has been in the choir since it started.
“Rhonda does a great job and we appreciate what she does. This year we are doing a collection of songs that we have done over the years for our 10th anniversary,” said Rohne, who sings tenor. “We have fun.”
Choir member Henry S. Johnson said he enjoys the camaraderie and laughter.
“You get to know people from different religions and churches because it's a community thing — I love it,” Johnson said.
Choir member Marcy Logan from Bethlehem Lutheran Church is supposed to be getting her knee replaced, but she said she loves participating in the community choir so much, that she's waiting until after the concert is over, she joked.
“I get chills sometimes when we perform — especially when we fill a place up where we are performing,” Logan said. “There are not many free things left in the world, but this event is. A lot of people spend a lot of time preparing for this, so I really encourage the public to attend, it's really incredible.”
Choir member Lana Bowden, also from Bethlehem Lutheran Church, said she enjoys being able to perform in a large choir, as most church choirs these days are small.
“I like being able to share the message that we are giving about Jesus,” Bowden said, giving kudos to Herrington. “We really appreciate what Rhonda does.”
Violinist Peggy Witt has been performing with the community orchestra for the past four years or so, with three of her five children also performing over the years. This year, her daughter Laura Witt, 23, is playing the French horn.
“My family has been involved for a while. I did this once when I was in high school,” Laura Witt said. “I love to play (the French horn) and I don't get many opportunities, so this is great.”
Peggy Witt has been playing the violin for 41 years.
“I have been playing the violin since I was in the sixth grade and in the past I performed with the Lubbock Symphony,” Witt said. “I like the challenge of playing the music. It's fun and I miss performing with a group. The music is gorgeous and I love the sounds — it's beautiful.”
Herrington is looking forward to the show on Dec. 15.
“The acoustics in the Palestine High School Auditorium are wonderful. The high school has been great to work with. We get to use some of their instruments and it makes it a lot easier for us,” Herrington said. “It can seat 700 per performance. Last year, over 1,000 attended.”
This year's show will last about an hour and include 12 selections.
“I do this because of the joy of the music and the commitment from the singers and orchestra. Everybody gives of their time and talents,” Herrington said. “Many of us miss having a big church choir. It's a lot of fun when you have 80 or 90 people together singing. This year's tenor and bass section is the best we've had in years.”
Local historian Jack Selden contributed to this article.