In the midst of decking the halls, jingling all the way and wishing for a silent night or two during the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, you will be offered Monday an opportunity to sit down for one of the area’s unique musical events.
The Smith River Singers will perform their annual Christmas concert at 6 p.m. at the Galilean House of Worship, located at 5078 A L Philpott Highway in Martinsville.
Presenting carols and cheer, this choir comprised of 75 non-auditioned singers will put on a single holiday performance for upwards of 1,000 people.
The Still Water Singers, an auditioned sect of the choir, performs multiple shows each year, but this full ensemble trains for months for this holiday concert – and those who miss it will have to wait until next spring to hear their incredible local talent.
The idea for a local choir captivated Pamela Randall as early as 2014. Randall, the program director of Liberal Studies through Longwood University in elementary and middle school education licensure at New College Institute, noted that the area has a rich choral history.
And when beloved local choir director Ran Minter passed away in 2015, Randall said she saw a void.
Minter had served as the choir director of Forest Hills Presbyterian Church and three times as interim adult choir director at Starling Avenue Baptist Church. He was also a member of the Piedmont Choral Society, the Martinsville Civic Chorus, the Cathedral Choir and other regional choirs and societies.
“Several people came to me and said, ‘We think you should do this,’” Randall said. “I just got some music friends together. The first choir had 23 people in it. It has grown from 23 to about 75. This is a singing community – always has been.”
Every year, the majority of the performers return to the choir.
“We fluctuate anywhere from 70 to 75. This concert, we have a couple people that are unfortunately sick and unable to sing. You know, things happen, but 70 to 75 is what we have been for the last three concerts,” Randall said. “I would say we fluctuate about 10 people on average. Each year, I’d say 10 people leave, and 10 new always seem to find a place.”
Krista Pratt, who sings first alto with the group, first joined the choir in 2017. Her love of singing started as a child and followed her into adulthood.
“First of all, Pam is an amazing director,” Pratt said. “She challenges us each season with music I would have never thought that I would have an opportunity to learn and sing. It’s amazing how everything just comes together in the end.
“Being a part of the Smith River Singers has been such a rewarding experience for me. I consider it to be a privilege to be a part of the group. It’s like we’re a big family.”
The performers’ ages range from their 20s to mid-80s, which makes for a unique blend of talents and strengths.
“The older folks bring a lot of wisdom,” Randall said. “They bring a different level of expertise and they also bring a level of decorum – you know, the little things of how ‘we’re going to walk in to do this concert.’ ‘Your folder should be in your right hand, not your left.’
“You know, they’ve been doing this for 50 years – they’ve got this down. The young folks bring energy and excitement. They bring vibrancy, just as they do in all groups.”
A history of leading
Randall said that she believes everyone who is willing to work hard and wishes to sing should have the opportunity. It’s a philosophy she has had since her choir-directing days at the former George Washington Carver High School, the former Laurel Park High School and Carlisle School.
“I’ve always had a select choir that was auditioned, but otherwise I never turned a child away from singing in the choir,” she said. “I think that one of the most heartbreaking things for an adult to say to me is that, ‘I was one of those kids in school where the teacher said, ‘That’s okay, just mouth the words.’
“The only requirement I have is just match pitch. I’ve had some people that I’ve had to work with to get there, but if you want to sing and you’re willing to work on it, there’s a place in the choir for you.”
The instruments behind them
There’s more that goes into a concert than singers arriving at a predetermined location at a certain time, getting up on stage and performing a selection of songs. One of those involves finding the perfect orchestra each year.
On Monday, there will be a 30-piece orchestra led by Bassett High School band director Trey Harris. It will be comprised of local high school students, members of the Roanoke Symphony Orchestra and others.
“We pay those people the going rate, the professional rate,” Randall said. “I think it’s important for high school students to understand that they’ve spent a lot of years practicing that craft and that they can make some money if they reach the upper level.”
Beth Chapman, the group’s collaborative accompanist, is also a key figure. For 13 years, she served as the local musical director for the Richmond Ballet’s in-school program, Minds In Motion. In addition to accompanying the Smith River Singers, she is the Chancel Choir Accompanist at First United Methodist Church in Martinsville.
Paying their dues — literally
Even though the concert is free to the public, there are certain expenses that come with running a choir, which require members to pay dues. However, if someone can’t pay, it doesn’t determine whether or not he or she can be a part of the group.
“Everyone that can afford to pay dues, pays dues. We have several generous members who support those who cannot,” Randall said. “We never turn anyone away because they can’t pay their dues. We have sponsors who pay people’s dues.”
The group also relies on the generosity of community members who attend the performance.
“We take a love offering at every concert because we have several projects that we fund. One of those is supporting the Piedmont Arts music school scholarship. One of those is funding a local student to attend the Roanoke Youth Symphony summer camp,” Randall said. “We have several music-related things that we always sponsor.”
A big show
Touring opera singers Jill and Jake Gardner from Kernersville, N.C., also will perform on Monday night.
“Both Jake and I are very excited to make our debuts with Smith River Singers with repertoire near and dear to our hearts, especially during the Christmas season,” Jill Gardner said. “It’s an honor to make music with Dr. Pam Randall and this stellar choral ensemble.”
Pratt also said she looked forward to the collaboration with the couple.
“They sing beautifully,” Pratt said. “To have this opportunity to be partnering with them on this concert, oh my word, that’s just a privilege. It’s exciting.”
The Smith River Singers will perform a variety of seasonal classics, hymns, secular selections and even Ralph Vaughan-Williams’ “Fantasia on Christmas Carols.”
“There’s a lot of variety. We’re also doing a piece by local composer Sandra Ford,” Randall said. “Think carols people will know well, like ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ to ‘You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch’ to ‘Silent Night,’ to ones they won’t be so familiar with, but we hope that they’ll enjoy.
“I think it’s all about connection and community. That’s the whole purpose of this choir. It’s bringing lots of different folks together, all ages, to celebrate making music together.”