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Eclectic Christmas

A cultural take on Christmas carols.

Sitting in a circle inside the sanctuary of St. Timothy's Episcopal Church in Herndon, the Voce Chamber Singers came together for one of its last rehearsals before this weekend's holiday performance — which they have rehearsed since Labor Day. Kenneth Nafziger, the artistic director of the group, wasted no time in getting things started.

"Let's go through this mistake free and get out of here by 8:15," he said with a smile, resulting in a few laughs among the singers.

The Voce Chamber Singers newest performance, "Christmas in the Americas," is a challenging collection of holiday songs ranging in geography from as far north as Canada to Central America. Learning the music has only been part of the process.

"There are difficulties for different reasons — there's language and the stiffer music challenges," said Nafziger. "There weren't any surprises with what would be difficult."

"Some of the pieces I had wanted to do before," he continued. "I'm always interested in new ways of structuring music programs."

Ryan Schnelz, one of the newest members of the group, agreed that this performance has been tough to master.

"The language and tempo were both challenging — it's been a few years since I've sung, so even more so," he said.

Joan Winter Skerritt, executive director of Voce, also agreed.

"For things like the Haitian Creole, we had to ask singers who they might know to help us pronounce," she said. "It definitely adds a whole other element."

A few minutes into the rehearsal, one member asked for a reminder on the pronunciation of a word in Latin.

"I couldn't find a translation for this so I just made it up based on the words I recognized," joked Nafziger.

WITH A GRIN, Nafziger switches from humor to vocal coaching without missing a beat. Led by simple hand gestures from Nafziger, the singers rehearsed the songs, jumping to various stanzas in order to work the few remaining kinks out of the program. With each note, St. Timothy's vaulted ceilings reverberated from the 19 voices in harmony.

The structure of "Christmas in the Americas" segues from popular Christmas songs, sung in English and Latin, to Albanzas — religious folk songs of Spanish origin sung throughout Latin America.

Tina Bonhivert, who sings and plays guitar accompaniment, was excited about the eclectic opportunity of the Albanza.

"There is a combination of Spanish traditional instruments and indigenous instruments like maracas and some musical stones," she said.

According to Skerritt, one piece even calls for a Huilacapitzli, or a clay flute in the shape of a disk.

"All of the Latin American songs are neat," she said. "It's nice to not sing the same old things that everyone knows."

The program is divided into four parts beginning with Canada and ending with the United States. Some of the songs include, "This Blessed Christmas Night," Wayland Rogers' "What Sweeter Music," "We Three Kings" arranged by Dave Brubeck, Emile Desamours' "Noel Ayison," Dulce Consuelo's "De Napa," and Alden Ashforth's "Hodie Christus natus est." The later of which is one of Skerritt's favorite because it begins with a soft whisper.

The Voce Chamber Singers will be performing "A Christmas in the Americas," this weekend at three different locations. On Friday, Dec. 8 they will sing at the Vienna Baptist Church, Dec. 9 at St. Timothy's Episcopal Church in Herndon and again on Dec. 10 at St. Francis in Great Falls.

WHILE THE PROGRAM offers an eclectic mixture of material, there will still be opportunity for some audience participation.

"We will be doing some sing-a-long carols and then some things people might never have heard of," said Skerritt. "The variety of music will really be something for people to hear. We also have complimentary receptions at all our performances with complimentary sweets from Latin America."