Next weekend's Christmas concerts by the Salt Lake Children's Choir in the Cathedral of the Madeleine will have a special significance for the ensemble that stretches well beyond the holiday season. They mark the choir's 25th anniversary and the beginning of a yearlong celebration.
"This is a very, very exciting year for us," said choir founder and director Ralph B. Woodward. "These concerts are the opening event of our 25th anniversary season."
Woodward added that the celebration will culminate at the official anniversary concerts in Libby Gardner Concert Hall and Abravanel Hall next May. "There will be some exciting performances later in Salt Lake City," he promised.
But before then, in what turned out to be an auspicious coincidence, the choir has been invited to perform at the prestigious American Choral Directors Association national convention in Los Angeles next February. "The choir will be featured in three concerts at the convention."
Woodward finds it hard to believe that a quarter of a century has passed since he started the choir. Especially when he thinks back to how it all came about. "We gave our first concert in December of 1979. The children were in robes made from their dads' shirts and with a makeshift bow."
The first concert was held in Whitmore Library. There were only about two-dozen singers in the original choir. "We didn't have a lot of kids in the choir because I didn't do auditions until October," Woodward said.
At the time, children's choirs were a new concept in Utah. "There was a boy's choir then, the Utah Boy's Choir, and there were efforts to organize other choirs, but most of the youth groups were associated with schools."
Woodward said he decided to start a children's choir because he saw there was a need to have children sing music focused on a specific repertoire. "It happened just because I had to do this. There was a call to have a group singing a certain kind of music."
And that repertoire includes art music by all the great composers, from the Renaissance to the 20th century, along with a large dose of folk music and some lighter pieces familiar to the audience.
Woodward said that the Christmas concerts next weekend will be true to the choir's traditions. "We're going to be singing the type of repertoire that we've done consistently over the years."
He has several favorites that he likes to program each year. "One of those is 'Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming.' It's a beautiful piece, and it also gives us a sense of history. Christmas brings up so many feelings in us. One of them is historya history of the different manners of expressing devotion over the years. I think that brings us together as a race."
Woodward said he is looking forward to presenting the program he has put together for these concerts. "I'm pretty excited about the opportunity to bring this music to our audience."
He added that this year marks the 20th anniversary that the choir has performed its Christmas concerts in the Cathedral of the Madeleine. "We've had a great relationship. The cathedral is a wonderful venue, and they're always happy to have us come."
The program for the concert draws on several sources. "The idea is that there is going to be a feeling of earlier traditions. There is also going to be an international aspect to it. We're drawing on pieces from our past and some things from the present. Some of the music will be new to many people."
On the program will be works by Monteverdi, Giacomo Perti, Haydn, J.S. Bach and Handel. The children will also sing some well-known songs, including "Bring a Torch, Jeannette Isabella," "Infant Lowly, Infant Holy" and "Il est ne le divin enfant."
On the folk-music side, Woodward will introduce the audience to a new piece from Peru that he recently discovered, and to which he added an Andean harmonization. "I dare say no one will have heard this piece before. The kids love it."
The concert will conclude with the traditional audience participation on several carols. Accompanying the choir will be University of Utah organist Kenneth Udy and harpist Lysa Rytting.
Woodward said that when he started the choir, he never expected that he would still be directing it 25 years later. "It's amazing that I've stuck with it for so long. But it's been a great ride."
If you go
What: Salt Lake Children's Choir, director Ralph B. Woodward
Where: Cathedral of the Madeleine, 331 E. South Temple
When: Saturday and Dec. 5, 8 p.m.
How much: FreeWeb: www.childrensing.com
KBYU-FM will broadcast last year's Christmas concert on Dec. 21, at 6 p.m. and Dec. 23 at 10 a.m.