December 17, 2012

Choir led by Furman grad gives ‘SNL’ poignant start

A moment that is likely to endure from the year-ending episode of “Saturday Night Live” is the quietly powerful opening of a children’s chorus singing “Silent Night,” which began a holiday-themed broadcast that was hosted by Martin Short and featured music from Paul McCartney.

The rendition of “Silent Night” that opened the show (Click here to watch the performance)was performed by the New York City Children’s Chorus, based at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church. It provided a stirring and memorable answer to the question of how that NBC comedy program would address the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., which left 20 children dead.

Mary Wannamaker Huff, artistic director of the children’s chorus, said that her group was first contacted by “Saturday Night Live” on Monday to perform with McCartney, who was looking for accompaniment on his song “Wonderful Christmastime.”

“As the situation in Connecticut evolved,” Huff said, “everybody realized that we needed to do something meaningful, to remember the folks in Connecticut. So ‘Silent Night’ was just a natural piece to do.” The chorus had its Christmas concert Sunday, she said, “and so ‘Silent Night’ was on the tip of our tongues.”

Huff is a 1999 graduate of Furman University, according to a Tweet by the school’s news service.

“When something tragic happens like this,” Huff added, “you have to love the people you’re with. One thing that can help you love and heal and talk and grieve is music. Especially the pure sounds of children. I hope that it at least allows people to feel and to grieve and to hug their own children tighter.”

In those rare instances when it has been called upon to do so, “Saturday Night Live” has dealt nimbly with events of national mourning. On its broadcast of Sept. 29, 2001, the first show to follow the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, “SNL” opened not with a comedy sketch but with remarks by Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who saluted the police, fire and rescue workers surrounding him onstage, and a performance by Paul Simon who sang “The Boxer,” a song about steely resolve in the face of adversity.

Asked by the “Saturday Night Live” executive producer Lorne Michaels if his show could have permission to be funny, Giuliani answered, “Why start now?”

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