Way back in the spring, as daffodils emerged from the cold ground and children paraded in their Easter finery, Leah Wyman Rouse began ruminating on Advent and the music of that special season in the lives of Christians.
She was a newly minted music director at Union United Methodist Church in Irmo, a mezzo soprano arriving in South Carolina via the Manhattan School of Music and musical stints in Pennsylvania and Canada, among other places. And she is passionate about sacred music.
Union UMC also was undergoing change, with a new pastor, the Rev. Wayne Horne, arriving in June. In the midst of that change, Rouse began thinking of ways she and the choir could “stretch and grow” during the season of expectant waiting known as Advent.
“This particular time has been extremely special to us because in our preparation, so many things have changed,” said Rouse, who often kicks off her shoes during practices to conduct barefoot.
On Thursday, Rouse will see the fruits of long practices and extra attention to difficult musical selections when Union presents “A Joyful Sight” at 7 p.m.
For the exuberant Rouse, the concert, with its mix of sacred standards and classical pieces rarely heard, is a tangible representation of the Advent spirit.
“This project is just filled, filled with these wonderful people. It is so moving and encouraging to me, especially from the choir members who have been here for 30 or 40 years, for them to say this is some of the most beautiful music we have done.”
The concert will feature the 45-member choir along with members of the South Carolina Philharmonic singing such favorites as “O Holy Night” and “O Come All Ye Faithful” as well as less familiar pieces.
One of those lesser-known selections, a composition by Bob Calcott called “Put Memory Away,” speaks of the Advent season as a new world where the promise of a holy child is new and fresh. Rouse took a line from that piece to title the concert “A Joyful Sight.”
“It is probably the most abstract piece of the ones we are singing,” said Helen McDowell, who was persuaded by Rouse just this week to sing a solo part to open the piece.
McDowell, a member of Union UMC since 1982, had sung in the choir off and on for 20 years, and rejoined it recently to participate in the Christmas concert.
“All the choir members kept telling me, when I would run into them, how glorious the music was,” McDowell said. “I thought this was an opportunity I should take advantage of.”
It has been a moving experience for her. “Every time we start singing, I think, ‘This is so beautiful.’”
Phyllis Vestal feels the same way, finding in the arrangements of traditional carols and other pieces a simplicity that resonates.
“It touches my heart,” said Vestal, another longtime church member. “The music that she has chosen brings this out. It is almost in a story mode. It tells the story of Jesus Christ.”
Two of Rouse’s friends, Jan Malcher and his wife, Lindsay Hilliard Malcher, recently welcomed a new baby and will sing a duet that will be imbued with the sense of expectation the Christ child brings.
Also participating include S.C. Philharmonic members Ashley Horvat, associate concertmaster; Damir Horvat, senior assistant concertmaster; and Jarrod Haning, principal viola. Other guest musicians will be Samuel Johnson, cello soloist, and USC freshman Will Capell, who joins UUMC organist Joey Rothfuss as piano accompanist.
“They are really feeling this anticipation and the expectancy of this birth,” Rouse said. “There is a lot of magic in the air. God is really guiding us into this good will. We want people to come in and celebrate with us that this new world is coming.”
“In the midst of this, it really feels that God is at work.”
If You Go
“A Joyful Sight” will be presented by Union United Methodist Church as an Advent gift to the community