STOCKBRIDGE — For music director Tracy Wilson and 35 members of the Stockbridge Festival Chorus, the Christmas concert on Dec. 10 at the First Congregational Church is not only a joyous celebration of the season.
It also marks the 35th anniversary of the chorus’s creation by the charismatic conductor and church choir director Penna Rose, whose goal was to expand the choir into a larger group for major works on special and seasonal occasions.
In 1992, Rose departed for Princeton University to serve as director of chapel music and the Chapel Choir. That year, Tracy Wilson became music director at the church on Main Street and conductor of the Festival Chorus.
Wilson, a Becket resident, has held both positions for 30 years and took over the Stockbridge Sinfonia, a summertime community orchestra, five years ago. In 2020, she retired after 17 years as director of the Berkshire Music School in Pittsfield.
So this weekend, it’s a major celebration for the Festival Chorus, which presents two major choral performances each year led by Wilson — one in December and one in the spring. There can be as many as 70 singers, depending on the program, as well as guest soloists, organists and small chamber ensembles.
“I am excited to celebrate the Festival Chorus’s 35th anniversary because it is a testament to our group’s forming a really close bond and loving to sing together,” said Wilson.
“I recently had a singer write to me saying that when she lost her husband about five years ago, she had taken a break from singing with us, but some of the singers reached out to encourage her to return,” Wilson added. “When she did, she was overwhelmed with the warm welcome back to the Festival Chorus family. ‘It’s about the people,’ she said.”
In an email interview this week, Wilson reflected on her three decades leading the chorus.
Q: How have audiences for your choral concerts changed over the years?
WILSON: My experience is that we are depending more upon friends and family to make up our audience, rather than the general public looking for a choral experience. Due to the growth in number of community choirs in the Berkshires, there are more choices for audience members, and there are only so many weekends in December for Christmas/holiday concerts. Plus a number of churches have very active music programs which attract their own audiences.
Q: How difficult is it to recruit qualified singers? Are auditions required?
WILSON: Recruitment is very healthy competition because it asks choral directors to program music that is unique to its body of singers and its venues, but this also presents the biggest challenge to recruit singers. There are only so many days/evenings to rehearse. The Stockbridge Festival Chorus does not require auditions; we are open to anyone that loves to sing and wants to join. We always have extra rehearsals to help singers learn the music.
Q: In programming a Festival Chorus concert, do you aim primarily for music likely to please the audience through familiarity or accessibility, or are you seeking to include works that challenge you as the director as well as the choristers.
WILSON: First and foremost, I select music I love and know that singers will be inspired to learn and perform. Secondly, since our home is the First Congregational Church of Stockbridge and we are born of the church’s music program, I lean toward sacred music, with a nice mix of secular selections, particularly for spring concerts.
Q: With the pandemic still not in the rearview mirror for many people, has COVID affected your ability to attract singers and audiences, since all presenters are facing this challenge of the "sweet spot" for protection as some audience members remain reluctant to congregate.
WILSON: Our singer ranks are down, somewhat due to COVID concerns, but other illnesses, as well: colds, flu, etc. Our COVID policy for the singers is the requirement that everyone be fully vaccinated and boosted, and do a rapid test on the day of the dress rehearsal, and day of concert. Singers may wear masks when rehearsing and performing, but it is not required. We are encouraging audience members to wear masks but it is not required. We will have sections marked off in the sanctuary for audience members wishing to sit distanced from others.
IF YOU GO
What: Stockbridge Festival Chorus Christmas Concert
Who: Stockbridge Festival Chorus conducted by Tracy Wilson, with pianist Bob Logan and organist Ed Lawrence accompanying. The centerpiece is an arrangement of traditional English carols and readings arranged by Jonathan Willcocks, son of the late Sir David Willcocks, the much-admired British conductor and composer.
Where: First Congregational Church, 4 Main St., Stockbridge
When: 3 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 10
Tickets: Recommended donation at the door: $20, adults; $10, local community choir members; free for 18 and under.
COVID policy: Masks are recommended. Choir members will not be masked. All singers will have updated boosters and test negative for COVID before the dress rehearsal and concert.