The Sacramento Choral Calendar
Grass Valley Male Voice Choir &
Carols by Candlelight - December 21, 2014
by Winslow Rogers
NOTE: Win Rogers sang in this concert, so this is not technically a review. However, we thought the story behind this concert might be of interest to the wider choral community, and so the Choral Calendar asked him to file a report.
The December 21st "Carols by Candlelight" concert in Grass Valley was a joint venture of the Grass Valley Male Voice Choir and the mixed-voice Cornish Carol Choir. Both groups descend from the choirs of the Cornish miners who came to Grass Valley in the nineteenth century to work in the gold mines. The Bells of the Sierra handbell choir, directed by Gordon Pipkin, also performed. There were also songs by the Male Voice Choir's small ensemble, and numerous sing-along carols for the audience.
Click here to open the concert program in a new window.
The real story of this concert is its celebration of the living tradition of Cornish carol singing in Grass Valley. The original male voice choir, founded in the 1870s, died out in 1967, after the mines had closed. The authentic folk tradition of their hymn-singing nearly died out.
Eleanor Kenitzer, a local church choir director, re-convened the Cornish Carol Choir in 1990, drawing on the memories of men who had sung in the old choir and still knew the old hymns. The Carol Choir is active in the fall and winter and performs the old carols at Christmastime. The Male Voice Choir was spun off from the Carol Choir in 1997, and is active year-round with a broad repertoire. They include one of the old Cornish songs at each of their concerts to maintain their Cornish connection. Eleanor Kenitzer still directs both groups.
Kenitzer told two moving stories about how these groups restored and renewed traditional Cornish singing in America. First, she gave a tribute to Harold T. George, who died in 2013 at the age of 93. He was the last living link with the old choir, a connection going back over a hundred years. He first sang in the male voice choir in 1926 at the age of six. His father, also named Harold George, started singing with the group in 1907 at age nine, and was the director of the choir for many years and died in 1973. (There were no women in the early choirs, and the upper part was sung by boys.)
Every year between the demise of the old choir in 1967 and its revival in 1990, Harold George Jr. would appear in downtown Grass Valley on Christmas Eve and sing the old carols at midnight, alone on the steps of the newspaper office, so they would not die out entirely. He gave crucial assistance to Kenitzer in reviving the Cornish Carol Choir, and sang in both the Cornish Carol Choir and the Male Voice Choir.
The other story relates to the ongoing work of spreading this tradition to other Cornish communities in America. Several years ago Eleanor was invited to a Cornish conclave in Wisconsin in order to teach Cornish carols to the assembled group. She reported that the audience didn't do any singing at their session, because they were all weeping. They were hearing songs they had heard as children from their parents, but that had gone out of their lives entirely.
At Sunday's concert the Male Voice Choir and its small ensemble presented a wide range of Christmas music, while the Carol Choir performed the traditional carols. At the end of the concert the two choirs performed together for the first time in many years. The strains of the sturdy old hymn "Diadem" rang out with joy and conviction.
Winslow Rogers is a member of the Grass Valley Male Voice Choir. You can learn more about the history of the Male Voice Choir on their website, www.gvmalevoicechoir.org.