By Erin Pesut
For some people, it’s not the holiday season until they hear Bing Crosby crooning Christmas carols. For others, things don’t kick off until the entire family sits down to watch a holiday film, like “It’s a Wonderful Life.” We each have our traditions. For Jason Britt, the new artistic director for the Cumberland Oratorio Singers, the Christmas season doesn’t start until he hears Part 1 of Handel’s “Messiah” being sung aloud.
This holiday season, the Cumberland Oratorio Singers will certainly be performing this oratorio with Britt at the helm. As the new artistic director, Britt oversees the COS, which is a group of community members who simply love to sing.
“There is a wide range of ages,” he said. “Some are high school students and others are 60, 70, 80 years old.”
Within COS, there is also the select-voice ensemble: the Cross Creek Chorale. Its 20 members, part of the overall COS, audition for this special group with an aria and a bit of sight reading. They make up a balanced choir, meaning there are just the right numbers of altos to sopranos to tenors to basses.
All in time
Britt himself is a Fayetteville native. For the past 20 years, he has been teaching choral music in the Cumberland County Schools and now does so at Cape Fear High School, from which he graduated. Britt received his music education degree from Methodist University and completed his master’s in music at Eastern Carolina University. He met Holli, his wife, 28 years ago at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, where Britt studied for two years before transferring to Methodist. “I was going to be a pharmacist,” he noted, “but me and chemistry were not getting along.” Holli is a branch coordinator at BB&T in Westwood Shopping Center. Their daughter, Jessica, a pharmacist with her degree from ECU, is a proud member of COS.
Britt wasn’t always immersed in music. He says his family was musical and enjoyed singing and playing the piano, but he waited until he was in the fifth grade before he jumped in feet first. In the elementary school orchestra, he played the cello. In junior high, he joined band and began learning the trombone.
“Learning to play a stringed instrument just sort of developed me into being a singer,” he noted.
Most of what Britt played would be for church – sacred music – and he could sight read the music right out of the hymnal.
Cumberland Oratorio Singers
An oratorio, generally a religious musical work, is very similar to an opera, only it’s not staged, there are no costumes and there is no scenery. Oratorios have always been the heart of COS, especially when it was started by Alan Porter 25 years ago.
Porter, who used to be an associate professor of music at Methodist, took a sabbatical to Austria in 1991 to study the work of Mozart. It was the bicentennial of the composer’s death and numerous concerts and lectures were held, centering around his pieces. One focused on Mozart’s “Requiem,” the piece the composer was working on when he died. Luckily, Mozart had given instructions to one of his students on how to finish the last third of the piece; otherwise, we may not have been graced with that work in its entirety.
Upon arriving home in the fall of 1991, Porter returned to Methodist and had the school’s choir begin working on “Requiem.” Britt, a student at Methodist, was in this choir and remembers the performance that was given for the community. People were in awe, he said. They asked, “Why can’t we have a choir that does this all of the time?”
Cumberland Oratorio Singers was born.
Seasons of Singing
Singing is ultimately a celebration, and yet it can also be a dedicated form of remembrance.
The COS season for 2017 and 2018 is themed around the reason “Why We Sing.” In the COS program, Britt writes, “We use music to celebrate, to mourn, to signify events, to worship, and to bookmark times in our lives. Why We Sing will address specific reasons why we (musicians and laymen alike) all sing, or should sing.”
Mark December 16th on your calendar. COS will be performing its “We Sing to Remember” concert at First Baptist Church at 201 Anderson Street in Fayetteville. This festive concert, revolving around the winter season, religious holidays and the thoughts we have of our friends, families and times gone by, will include themes of Christmas and will also include Part 1 of “Messiah,” Britt’s favorite classic of the season.
Come spring – around April – another concert will explore the theme of “We Sing to Experience.” It will include nods to the themes of experiencing emotion, language, compassion, the community of life and also the formal elements of music – melody, harmony, progression, phrasing and dynamics.
For this concert, Britt says, COS will perform works that he believes all choirs should be familiar with – Handel’s “Sing Unto God,” Franz Josef Haydn’s “Achieved Is Thy Glorious Work,” “Der Gang Zum Liebchen” by Johannes Brahms and “Cantique de Jean Racine” by Gabriel Faure.
COS takes a break in the summer. Other than that, they meet and sing every Monday night at 6:45 p.m. at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church on Raeford Road.
“It’s a great place to sing,” Britt said. “The acoustics, the hard tile floors, the big expansive vaulted cathedral ceilings – there’s nothing that buffers the sound.”
Turning the page
Britt’s goal as the new artistic director is to continue to introduce COS to the community. He’s surprised when people say they’ve never heard of the choir, especially since the arts are a prominent market here. He’d like to pair up with and work alongside the Cape Fear Regional Theatre or the Fayetteville Symphony, especially since all three organizations are under new directors this season.
COS is open to anyone who enjoys singing. “You don’t have to be someone who holds a degree in music,” Britt said. “It would help that you’ve sung in a high school choir but anyone who wants to have that point of contact with music, whether you’re a doctor, a pharmacist or a lawyer, can do that here.” The choir always has a particular need for more basses and tenors and is always looking for possible venues that may be interested in hosting concerts.
Tickets for performances are $27 each. Group discounts are available. Students with ID are admitted free of charge. Tickets can be bought the day of the concert with cash or a credit card or you can purchase season tickets for all three concerts for $70.