Several times over the past nine decades came events that could have scuttled the Alice P. Taylor Candlelight Service, a beloved Henderson holiday tradition.
The Great Depression didn’t. Neither did World War II, upheavals in American society or the dissolution of the music group that started the whole thing.
Let the record show: the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t, either.
Despite the necessity to not gather in large groups as either an audience or performers, the show — believed to be the 90th annual edition of what some affectionately refer to as The Alice P. — is going to go on.
The hour-long concert of classical and sacred music for the Christmas season won’t, as in the past, be performed in person in a local church sanctuary.
Instead, it will be presented virtually, via a video that debuts at 4 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 6, on the Facebook page of the Henderson Area Arts Alliance at www.facebook.com/HendersonAreaArtsAlliance.
It will also be played on WSON 860 AM and 96.5 FM as well as streamed on wsonradio.com shortly after 8 a.m. on Christmas Day.
This year it will feature performances not only by talented Henderson vocalists and instrumentalists, but by professional performers with ties to Henderson who are now strewn around the country.
It likely features the greatest diversity of performers — by creed, race and denomination — in the history of the candlelight service.
And never before have the performances originated from dozens of locations — various churches and numerous homes in at least four states — with such a singleness of purpose.
Finding a way
Organizers recognized months ago that trying to fill the pews of a local church — this year’s candlelight service was scheduled to take place at First Christian Church — wouldn’t be prudent or even possible. Indeed, the public and probably performers would be staying away in droves.
“There was a brief moment” of considering cancellation of the long-running holiday tradition this year, “but it didn’t last long,” Heather McCormick, one of the service’s organizers, said.
Instead, the current group of candlelight service organizers — McCormick, Donna B. Stinnett and Susan Sauls — began exploring how to deliver performances of classical sacred music despite the pandemic.
“We knew we couldn’t come into (a church) and have hundreds of people,” McCormick said. “But we believed it was important to continue this community tradition in some way.
“Donna, Susan and I all go to churches that have taken advantages of one of the positives of COVID by having virtual services (that people can view online from their homes), and a light bulb went off and we saw a new opportunity – not only to have a service but to have it beyond the doors of the church and beyond the boundaries of Henderson and to involve people who could never be here to perform in person. Like Herndon Lackey” – the Henderson native who performed for years on Broadway — as well as Jt Posadas, who plays viola in the Utah Symphony “and other brilliantly talented Henderson people who perform professionally and couldn’t be in Henderson the first week of December,” when the candlelight service traditionally is conducted.
So invitations went out for performers to make videos of themselves performing songs in The Alice P. tradition that were then merged into a single 56-minute video.
When McCormick was first interviewed for this story more than a week ago, she said, “(Vocalist) Phillip Morgan is the only one I’ve seen. Oh my God, I wept, it is so beautiful.”
She finally got to view the entire 56-minute service last Monday night. “It so far exceeded anything I could have imagined,” McCormick said later.
“We have so, so many talented vocalists and instrumentalists and directors and accompanists who have been in Henderson and are making music everywhere, and thanks to this stinking pandemic we get to have them together at the Alice P. Taylor,” she said.
“I think we’re going to move people to tears with this recording,” McCormick said.
There are a host of soloists, soloists with an accompanist and one five-person ensemble featured in this year’s candlelight service.
The service will also feature a performance of “The Lord Bless You and Keep You” by members of the Henderson County High School Chamber Choir, directed by Heather Eaves.
Approximately 25 of the Chamber Choir’s 39 members participated, including 20 who appear in individual frames in the video and several more who provided audio tracks.
“They sang at home using their Chromebooks,” Eaves said. “I prepared a track for them to sing with, and they listened to it through headphones while they sang. I took their videos and edited them together into the virtual choir video.
“Most of the students in this choir are familiar with the piece of music we sang; we sing it each year,” she said. “It’s a tradition (the beloved retired choir director) Mr. Tommy Tate started. Therefore, we just had a short rehearsal on it in-person during hybrid instruction. I also made practice tracks for the students so that they could practice at home. I walked them through how to film/record properly as well.
“My students and I love the Alice P. Taylor,” Eaves said. “I’m personally thankful that we are still able to contribute to it even though things are different. It feels nice to be able to come together as a community, albeit virtually, and celebrate the holidays.”
A ‘solo duet’
Another performer will be Henderson native Rebecca Farley, who for several years has been a professional classical singer and soloist living in Manhattan.
“I was singing for as long as I can remember,” Farley said in a telephone interview from her home in the city’s Washington Heights neighborhood. “My dad (Bruce Farley) sang at church; he was the cantor at Holy Name (Catholic Church). We always loved music at our house.
“I started singing at youth mass at church and in choirs at school and had my first voice lesson when I was 15 years old, during the summer between my freshman and sophomore years,” when she was coached to sing an Italian art song as an audition for the three-week-long Governor’s School for the Arts that would take place at Transylvania University in Lexington. She was accepted.
“I studied really hard for three weeks and the rest is history,” Farley said. “I’ve been studying for 15 years now.”
After graduating County High in 2008, Farley completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Kentucky and then earned her master’s degree in opera and voice at the prestigious Juilliard School in New York City.
Since then, she has performed “a little bit of everything under the classical umbrella – oratorios that are concerts like an opera but without the (theatrical) staging, cantatas, masses, in operas, recitals written for one voice and piano and (as a soloist) with symphonies; the most recent was with the Rochester Philharmonic. I just go here and there around the country” as a freelance or contract performer.
In May, during the early months of the pandemic, Farley released a video on YouTube showing her performing a “solo duet” — singing both parts of the selection “Laudamus Te” from Vivaldi’s Gloria. She videoed herself to make it appear as though she were standing next to herself, then spliced them seamlessly together along with a smaller view of her piano accompanist.
“I think Heather McCormick saw the video and reached out” to discuss recording a piece for the candlelight service, Farley said. “I knew her way back – she was quite instrumental to me committing to this path (as a professional vocalist). I love and appreciate her. She said, ‘I want this Alice P. concert to be an opportunity to do something we couldn’t have done otherwise.’”
Like singing lead and a second part with herself. After all, “I could never have done a solo duet in concert.” Farley recorded herself singing a solo duet of César Franck’s version of “Panis Angelicus” (“Bread of Angels”) from an ancient hymn by St. Thomas Aquinas.
She is accompanied by Hendersonian Kaleb Hilton, a gifted young pianist who, as she did, is studying music at U.K. “Kaleb is wonderful … I met him on Facebook,” Farley said.
Before Farley and Hilton recorded their respective parts of “Panis Angelicus,” she said, “We talked (via Facetime) through the tempo and the phrasing moments where I might want to take more time, where I might have momentum to push through to the next part.”
After getting on the same page, albeit 600 miles apart (they’ve never met in person), Hilton shot a video of himself performing the piece on piano at Faith Lutheran Church in Lexington, where he is the director of music.
“He sent me a recording and after listening to it a few times,” Farley said, “I sang it a few times, then set up my camera, put in earphones” so she could hear Hilton’s piano performance and recorded herself in her New York apartment singing the two parts of the duet in separate videos. She then used video editing software to splice the three videos together to form a single performance.
Like McCormick, “I don’t want this to feel like a consolation,” Farley said of this year’s candlelight service. “I want it to be a celebration, something inspiring. This is an opportunity to push the boundaries in what we can do.”
This isn’t Farley’s debut in the candlelight service; she sang in it with her high school choir once and another time as a soloist.
She’s just one of several of this year’s guest performers who have ties to the service that originated with the Henderson Music Club, founded in 1924.
Alice P. Taylor, who had been a professional operatic and classical singer in San Francisco before marrying local attorney N. Powell Taylor and moving to Henderson in 1897, was an early president of the club.
Some believe the first Christmas Candlelight Service took place in 1931, though others think it was even earlier. Assuming that the service originated in 1931 and that no year was skipped, this will be the 90th edition of the event.
In 1951, the Henderson Music Club (led by the late Rebecca Lackey) added Taylor’s name to the service to honor her. For five years, until her death in 1956, Taylor was honored at the service with a special seat adorned with a big red bow and a corsage from the Music Club. From 1951 to 1979, Lackey coordinated each year’s event.
The Henderson Music Club dissolved about 25 years ago, but dedicated volunteers including Dianne Wham and Heather McCormick handled the organizational details for about 15 years until former First United Methodist Church Director of Music Ministries Matthew Vanover took over for a while. For the past several years, the organizers have included McCormick, Stinnett and Sauls.
Several of this year’s performers have strong connections with that heritage. Singer Herndon Lackey, for example, is a son of Rebecca Lackey
“The Alice P. Taylor Candlelight Service has a longstanding history in my life,” said Henderson native Emily Fife, who now lives in Leitchfield and plays the harp for this year’s service. “My harp teacher, Mrs. Louise Benton, was a member of the committee for a very, very long time, and so I kind of grew up watching her perform at the service and now I feel like I can continue her legacy by performing as well.”
The Alice P. Taylor organizers this year are partnering with the Henderson Area Arts Alliance, which had its 2019-2020 season curtailed by the pandemic and is pushing back what would be its current season to 2021-2022.
“We’ve been looking for ways to present something on a smaller scale and virtually,” HAAA Executive Director Natalie Singer said. “It’s exactly what we wanted to do.”
“It’s a really cool project and we’re excited to get it out to the public and let people have an uplifting experience that they haven’t had in a long time. People are missing the arts, so I’m very excited,” Singer said.
While each performer was asked to record themselves on digital video — on laptops or smartphones — the organizers turned to Darrin Phegley – Capturing Life to put all the videos together.
For Phegley, one of the greatest challenges is receiving the large video files from around the country at his home in Niagara, where internet service is spotty.
“They’re big files that you can’t email, you can’t text, you can’t get very quickly,” he said. “… Anything over a minute or so is pretty huge.”
Phegley was nervous about video and audio quality. But McCormick assured them that these performers would be sensitive to doing it right, and they did.
As for McCormick, in addition to her years of helping with organization, she had performed in the service as a soloist, choir director or accompanist every year since returning home from college in the early 1980s — until now.
She’s glad The Alice P. is breaking new ground.
“I don’t think we ever would have considered — just like our churches never considered — doing a live stream,” McCormick said. “We got super excited when we started thinking what we could do with a live in-person service (in post-pandemic years). I’m still excited.”
“We’re all committed to keeping the tradition alive and we’re hoping in future years we can have it in-person and also streaming (performances),” McCormick said. “Technology became more important to us during this pandemic and there’s no reason to abandon one of the positives” in this challenging year.
For more information on this year’s concert, see the Henderson Area Arts Alliance Facebook page at www.facebook.com/HendersonAreaArtsAlliance
This year’s performers include:
- Nikolai Peek, organ
- Brandon Brack, piano
- Vocal ensemble members Danielle Anguish, Kelsey Anguish, Derrick Brooks, Tiana Clark and Amani Owens (E. J. Simmons, accompanist)
- Jacob Hein, baritone/piano
- Matthew Vanover, piano
- Herndon Lackey, baritone
- Jt Posadas, viola
- Kaleb Hilton, piano
- Heather Eaves, soprano, and Aaron Eaves, baritone
- Emily Fife, harp
- Rebecca Farley, soprano (Kaleb Hilton, accompanist)
- Henderson County Chamber Choir (Heather Eaves, director)
- Phillip Morgan, baritone (A.T. Simpson Jr., accompanist)
- Rev. David Clifford of First Christian Church will provide the welcome, prayer and benediction while Rev. Tim Hobbs of Community Baptist Church will provide the scripture reading.