Woog’s World: The Candlelight Concert, a Hallelujah heard ’round Westport for 75 years
Updated 7:30 am, Saturday, December 12, 2015
The world of education changes often, and rapidly. One year, there’s one way to teach reading, math or penmanship; the next, there’s a (completely different) other.
Our schools are very different places than they were 10 or 20 years ago — let alone 75. Which is why the Candlelight Concert is so very special.
Next weekend (Dec. 18 and 19), Staples High School celebrates 75 years of Candlelight (OK, it was originally called Christmas Candlelight — that’s one of the very few changes). The event is still free. It still offers beautiful choral and orchestral music, pageantry and a peppy production number. For musicians, alumni and thousands of other Westporters, it still is the highlight of the holiday season.
Last week, Adele Valovich — a driving force behind the upcoming celebration — reflected on three-quarters of a century of Candlelight. She has not been here that long, of course. She began teaching in Westport in 1983 and was named orchestra director in 1992, but like everyone associated with the concert, she loves and honors its history.
John Ohanian arrived in Westport in 1940 as townwide director of music. That winter, he organized a small concert featuring the orchestra and chorus. It was held at Bedford Junior High School (now Kings Highway Elementary). Staples High (now Saugatuck Elementary) lacked an auditorium.
As Westport grew, and Staples’ population swelled, so too did Candlelight. In the 1950s, it moved to Long Lots Junior High. There was no auditorium there either — the concert was produced in the gym — but it seated more people than Bedford. When Staples opened its North Avenue campus in 1959, Candlelight had the home it deserved.
Five years earlier, the “Hallelujah Chorus” had been added as the rousing finale. The next year, Ohanian brought “Sing We Noel” — a majestic, obscure 16th-century carol — to Candlelight, as a solemn processional. He’d heard it performed at Northfield School in Massachusetts. Today, Staples and Northfield-Mt. Hermon may be the only two places in the world where “Sing We Noel” can still be heard.
In the 1970s and ’80s, Broadway choreographer Gene Bayliss wrote and directed original production numbers. They were professional-quality affairs, laced with wit, but very much imbued with the holiday spirit.
Jack Adams’ band joined the program in 1986. Brass instruments added one more festive element to Candlelight.
More changes came when Alice Lipson succeeded George Weigle as choral director in 1989 (he had followed Ohanian, making her only the third person in that position in Staples history). Lipson included more Hanukkah songs and introduced world music as well. African holiday tunes now provide some of Candlelight’s most memorable moments.
Valovich says that Lipson — like all Staples music teachers — was very sensitive to the fact that some students might feel uncomfortable performing Christmas music. Throughout Lipson’s tenure at Staples, only once did a freshman girl opt out of participating. By her junior year, she was on stage, singing her heart out.
“It’s about the music,” Lipson, whose husband and daughter are rabbis, often said.
“The verses don’t mean as much as the mystique, the aura, the processional with the candles and robes,” Valovich explained.
All that mystique and more will be on full display next weekend, as it has been for 75 years in Westport (well, almost. In the 1990s, when the auditorium was renovated, Candlelight moved to Norwalk City Hall. The mayor offered it, free of charge).
Valovich and her colleagues have worked for a year to produce this year’s event. Members of Staples’ Music Parents Association organized an alumni reception at the Westport Inn before the Saturday concert and a post-concert reception, also Saturday at Staples.
Current Staples student Devon Murray designed a kiosk booth. Listeners will punch in a year, then view that program and listen to its music.
Carla Eichler’s graphic design class created a distinctive logo and posters.
Former students contributed records, cassettes and CDs, covering nearly early year since 1954. All have been digitally remastered into a four-CD set. Check out StaplesMusic.org, then click through to the “Candlelight 75 Store” to buy a copy.
There will be many familiar faces at this year’s Candlelight. Lipson and Weigle are coming; so is former orchestra director John Hanulk’s son and daughter.
Ohanian’s son, David — a Staples grad, and longtime Boston Symphony principal horn — will guest conduct the “Hallelujah Chorus” at all three performances.
Alumni will return from as far back as the Class of 1960, and as far away as California. It’s hard to tell who is more excited: those older singers and musicians, the current ones or their teachers.
“It’s so important to give people something to celebrate,” Valovich noted. “In the midst of all the tumult in the world, it’s nice to see people centered around the common bond of music.”