December 2, 2010 | by Joey DiGuglielmo
Sounds of the season

MCC's Shirli Hughes at a rehearsal Monday night for this weekend's Christmas concerts. (Blade photo by Michael Key)

One of the nice aspects of Washington living is the chance for full LGBT participation in the region’s Christian churches.

And practically all the region’s parishes — from mostly gay gathering spots like Metropolitan Community Church of Washington to welcoming and inclusive worship spaces like National City Christian Church in Thomas Circle — have holiday concerts planned throughout the month.

This weekend’s annual Christmas concert at MCC-DC has become a tradition. This year’s offerings, dubbed “Season of Joy!” are tonight at 7:30 and Saturday at 7. There’s no cost to attend.

“I think so many people really look forward to this particular concert because it really brings so many different people together at one time,” says Shirli Hughes, MCC’s music minister and choir director. “So it’s kind of like sitting down with friends and family for a special meal and it brings a lot of people into the church who might not otherwise come.”

The church’s choirs have a stirring and eclectic set list planned that will dart around from secular to sacred, gospel to contemporary, classical and traditional.

“We’re really covering everything this year,” Hughes, a lesbian, says. “From some old-school R&B with Donny Hathaway’s ‘This Christmas,’ to traditional carols and even an arrangement of the old Three Dog Night song ‘Joy to the World’ that we’ve re-arranged and it just sounds awesome. Plus we’ve got some extra voices this year so it’s an even bigger, more seasoned sound.”

The church’s two choirs — praise and gospel — will feature about 40 singers. A string ensemble will play while attendees arrive and two cellists will accompany the choir along with Hughes, pianist Julio Fonseca, drummer Jonas Baubrun and long-time MCC bassist Wardell Howell. It’s free but an offering will be taken. Last year about 700 attended over two nights.

Charles Miller, organist and minister of music at National City, has a busy month planned as his church will be used for several recitals, concerts and worship services.

“What I think is so magical about this time of year is that there’s something about Christmas music that seems to touch the hearts of everybody whether they’re regular church goers or not,” Miller, who’s gay, says. “These are pieces of music, carols that almost everybody seems to know by heart. You hear people humming them. Everybody knows the words to ‘Silent Night’ and ‘Joy to the World.’ And yeah, there are a lot of high-brow arrangements of Christmas Carols and some very elaborate Christmas music, but the thing is, it’s really about these simple carols. They span generations and church goers versus non-church goers, they span countries and nationalities, so it allows everybody literally to be touched in some way whether they’re Christian or what not.”

Miller plays an organ recital today at 12:15 — a free weekly event his church hosts. He’s planning settings of carols by Bach, Virgil Fox, Richard Purvis and Sigfrid Karg-Elert.

During an interview Tuesday Miller — just returning from an out-of-town family trip for Thanksgiving — joked about his preparation efforts.

“I may try a Virgil Fox arrangement of ‘Hallelujah Chorus,’ but don’t count on it,” he said. “It’s a pretty big piece and takes some work to make it sound half-way decent on a pipe organ. We’ll see if I can get my ass in gear and practice.”

On Saturday, the Fairfax Choral Society has an “around the world” Christmas concert planned at National City. It’s at 7 p.m. and tickets are $25.

On Dec. 8, the Fessenden Ensemble, a chamber group of local top-level players, will give a $30 concert at 7:30 at the church. On Dec. 10, organist Eric Bowman plays the noon recital. The church has its annual “lessons and carols” service on the 12th at 11 a.m. At 3 that afternoon the Washington Sinfonietta and the National Cathedral School Guild Choir has a concert. Tickets are $20. On Dec. 17, organist Steven Kalnoske plays the Friday recital and will play his improvisations of Christmas carols. And on the 18th an 19th at 4 p.m., the Children’s Chorus of Washington has its concert. Miller will be playing and conducting at the church’s 7:30 p.m. Christmas Eve service.

Why so many outside groups?

“They really love to perform here because of the beauty of the acoustics,” Miller says. “It’s such a wonderful atmosphere in which to make music and it gives some of the outside groups a chance to play in the city.”

Hundreds of other church recitals will be offered throughout the region. Too many for this list to be all-inclusive, but here are some of the highlights.

On Sunday from 5 to 8 p.m. Alexandria’s Christ Church Episcopal has its fifth annual “Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols” that will feature adult and children’s choir under the direction of gay organist and choirmaster Jason Abel. Community leaders from Alexandria will read the lessons. The concert is free but an offering will be collected to support the music program at Mount Vernon Woods Elementary School, a special needs school in Fairfax County that Abel says has a great program.

“Every fifth and sixth grader there participates in choral and instrumental music and that’s a rarity in this time,” Abel says. “The teachers at this school do amazing work on a shoestring budget so the offering will go to help purchase instruments, uniforms or other things the music department might need.”

A brass quintet will also play. One of the hymn arrangements is from openly gay composer Richard Webster. Bruce Neswick, also gay, composed one of the anthems. Doors open at 4:30 and a capacity crowd is expected. A reception will follow. Christmas Eve services are planned at noon, 3 p.m., 5:30, 8 and 10:30. There’s also a 10 a.m. service on Christmas. A children’s pageant will be presented on Dec. 19 at 5 p.m. The church is at 118 North Washington Street in Alexandria and is open and affirming to gays.

“A Renaissance Christmas” is Dec. 10-12 at Georgetown University’s Gaston Hall by the Folger Consort with the Tallis Scholars. Visit www.folger.edu/consort for more information.

Handel’s “Messiah” is today, Saturday and Sunday at the National Cathedral with the Cathedral Choir, Baroque Orchestra, soloists and under the direction of conductor Michal McCarthy. Tickets range from $25 to $85. Visit www.nationalcathedral for details.

Church of the Holy City, another gay-welcoming congregation, has its “Christmas Art Concert” on Dec. 12 at 3:30 p.m. Admission is free. The church is at 1611 16th Street, N.W. Go to www.swedenborgcenter.org for details.

Washington has many gay-welcoming churches — too many to name, but a couple that also have music planned include Augustana Lutheran Church at 2100 New Hampshire Ave., N.W. and Foundry United Methodist Church at 1500 16th Street, N.W. Visit the churches online for details.

“Every denomination has their sort of extremes and there are some religious communities that are very ultra conservative no matter what, but Washington is remarkably open and very accepting of people from all walks of life,” Miller says. “There are so many people here from so many different parts of the world, that there’s really an overriding sense of openness and that’s certainly the case at National City.”

Joey DiGuglielmo is the Features Editor for the Washington Blade.

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