The National Cathedral has hosted religious services since 1906, but like countless churches across the country, in-person gatherings have been halted by COVID-19.
“The Cathedral Choral Society is 79 years old and we’ve been doing the ‘Joy of Christmas,’ believe it or not, since 1976 without fail,” Executive Director Christopher Eanes told WTOP. “It’s really one of D.C.’s great holiday traditions. There’s really no better place to get in the spirit for Christmas than in the National Cathedral.”
Planning for the concert was unique during this bizarre pandemic year.
“When we first shut down in March … we thought to ourselves, ‘We’ll probably be able to do our next concert in May,'” Eanes said. “Here we are, everything is still digital for the foreseeable future. It’s been [a] wild ride. Everybody’s whose working with choirs and other music groups is saying, ‘How did we become part of the film industry?'”
The virtual presentation is shot by Warehouse Productions.
“In this video, you’re actually going to see parts of the cathedral that you might not otherwise see,” Eanes said. “George Fergus is one of the organists … you’ll be able to see him directly playing in overhead shots. Maybe the most unique thing we’re doing is shots of the carillon, which is the melodic bell set that lives up in the bell tower.”
Singing was mostly recorded in the cathedral with a few remote additions.
“We put small groups in there, a few people at a time, to create the overall effect,” Eanes said. “For those who didn’t feel comfortable coming in, there’s a virtual choir part where we overlay everybody’s faces. … Dr. [Anthony] Fauci answered one of my emails asking, ‘Is this safe?’ He said, ‘You’re being about as safe as you can be.'”
What beloved Christmas carols can we expect to hear?
“You’ll hear all of your favorite carols: ‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,’ ‘Angels We have Heard on High,'” Eanes said. “We’re including music by some composers you might not have heard of before, including Reena Esmail, a young composer of Indian descent who lives in Los Angeles … performed by the fantastic all-women’s group Seraph Brass.”
These visiting artists will join the 130 members of the Cathedral Choral Society, who were recently nominated for two Grammys in two categories for their performance of Alexander Kastalsky’s World War I piece “Requiem,” conducted by Leonard Slatkin.
“The Cathedral Choral Society is the oldest symphonic society in Washington,” Eanes said. “The first rehearsal was Dec. 1, 1941, a few days before Pearl Harbor. We’ve always been associated with whatever is happening in the national conversation, [including] a concert cut being short by the assassination of Martin Luther King.”
Just like those troubled times, the cathedral’s music is helping people heal from COVID-19.
“Coming together as a community to experience music that is a shared language for all of this is something we all need and we all crave,” Eanes said. “If we can’t come together to experience it in person, then what we can experience is the beauty of music that we know and love to bring some light into what is a very dark time.”