Memorial Chapel was a festive sight last weekend as the NMH community gathered for its annual holiday Vespers concert. Pathways were aglow with luminaria, and the chapel’s interior was uplifted by evergreen swags, candles, and scores of poinsettia donated in honor of loved ones or simply to support the event. Bundled-up attendees packed into pews as the proceedings commenced.
Vespers is in its 115th year at NMH. While the traditional holiday concert officially dates back to 1909, Head of School Brian H. Hargrove noted in his welcome address that the addition of candlelight didn’t commence until 1933.
The concert is a favorite for many, as several audience members testified. “It’s very nostalgic to be back,” said Kathryn (Kate) Roloff ’99. As a student, Roloff participated in Vespers as a clarinetist.
“She had four wonderful years here,” her father, Don Roloff, said. “Kate’s work took her away from the area for a while. I am glad we were able to come back this year. It could be the start of a new Christmas tradition.”
Elizabeth (Betsy) Bullard Morse ’73, who celebrated her 50th reunion back in June, was a member of the chorus when she was a student. She attended Vespers with her granddaughter, Ruth Mautner. Mautner, who is 8 years old and plays the viola, was back at Vespers for the second time. Morse was delighted to share the concert with her granddaughter. “This is becoming our little thing!” she said.
The 2023 program offered a breadth of styles and tones. The music came from many countries, with Swedish, German, Latin, English, and Spanish languages represented, said Orchestra and Band Director Steven Bathory-Peeler.
“This year's Vespers was a rich and varied program, both in music and readings,” he said. “This was Alexandra Ludwig's first Vespers as our choral director, and we in the performing arts department are delighted to have her!”
Ludwig acknowledged the extent of the work and planning that goes into the performance. “Participating in the tradition of Vespers is such an honor,” she said. “It always feels funny to start preparing Christmas music in October, but musicians get used to it so we can hit the ground running in December.
“It's always nice to feel the reactions from student singers when the pieces get put into the context of the program,” she added. “Suddenly, they understand why we've been doing what we've been doing. It goes from the abstract to the meaningful.”
This year’s program included numerous traditional holiday songs. A clear favorite was George Frederick Handel’s “Joy to the World,” which the congregation participated in with gusto.
Ludwig explained that the musical selections were in part made to create an experience of emotional storytelling. “The order of the pieces can suggest a sort of itinerary. For Vespers, it was important to me to have the music reflect the spirit of the readings,” she said. She also expressed gratitude for her colleagues in the music program, including Bathory-Peeler and Director of Musical Programs Ronald “Smitty” Smith.
Hargrove and several students delivered messages of joy, peace, and resilience throughout the program, alongside readings and musical pieces performed by the Concert Choir, the Chamber Orchestra, and the Select Treble Ensemble.
The students uniformly performed songs with transcendent precision and grace. Ensemble member Aurora Song ’25 said her nerves were calmed when she saw the candles and peaceful atmosphere of the chapel. Song said her favorite moment of the night was singing “Stille Nacht (Silent Night).”
“It was especially challenging because as Vespers came to an end, the candles were put out, and the whole choir had to sing in the dark without music, relying not on Alexandra, but on our ears and our cooperation with each other,” she said.
NMH students will again perform Vespers at St. George's Episcopal Church in New York City on Thursday, Dec. 14, at 7 pm. There is no admission fee, but registration is required. A recording of the Dec. 3 evening program is available on the NMH website.