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December 23, 2010

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Christmas a capella choir of angels

The Shepherds Ensemble is the city's first choral group dedicated to early European sacred music in the a capella tradition. They perform a Christmas concert of Renaissance composers and sing "Hallelujah" from Handel's "Messiah." Zhu Moqing lifts his voice.

While most expat couples were busy shopping or preparing to leave Shanghai for Christmas, American couple David and Anne Miller were sitting in front of a piano in a music school on Julu Road, marking choral sheet music by Renaissance composers.

Elsewhere in the same school last Saturday, around 20 local singers, mostly young people, were rehearsing their parts for works by composers such as Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina and Tom°§s Luis de Victoria.

After a break to enjoy Christmas cookies baked by Anne, the singers greeted conductor Wu Jiagong, a young and fervent choirmaster and headmaster of the Guangqi Music School.

With a firm and brief gesture from Wu, the first chord of Palestrina's "Hodie Christus Natus Est" was brilliantly delivered by the city's first singing group dedicated to early sacred European choral music in the a capella tradition - The Shepherds Ensemble.

At a Christmas prayer concert on Sunday at a church near Biyun International Community, the choristers will sing works by Palestrina and Victoria from their core repertoire as well as popular Christmas showpieces like "For Unto Is a Child Is Born" and "Hallelujah" from Handel's "Messiah." They chose Bruckner's a capella motet "Locus Iste" as the opening piece of their performance.

The choir was born in winter 2007 of the dreams of two choral music aficionados. "It's a product of the love of early polyphonic singing," said Zhao Boyang, founder of the choir and an alto falsettist.

"In China the genre is unknown to most people and the mission of the choir is to draw more public attention to the beautiful polyphonic singing of the Renaissance and early Baroque periods," says Zhao.

Each Saturday afternoon, the choir rehearses for three hours at the Guangqi Music School. None of the members is a professional singer. Many of them have a deep love of early music and joined through, a social network website popular among Chinese art lovers.

"Every week we have the enjoyment of being moved by music and we are trying to lead a life with music as an important part," Zhao says. Through rehearsals and tutorials at the school, the members have the joy of producing the music they like while learning essential techniques of choral singing and performing.

David and Anne Miller had been active choir members of an Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas, before they arrived in China in June 2009. Missing the joy of singing, the two veteran choristers joined the Shepherds Ensemble, their first encounter with a Chinese choir, in October 2009. They were introduced by the bass leader of the choir.

"It's a totally unique and unusual experience for me," said David Miller, who is working as a welding specialist for American Bureau of Shipping's China division.

"I've been enjoying it a lot on many different levels. It's not the same as what we were used to in Texas, but I think everyone in the group wants to truly make it the best they can."

Anne Miller, a music teacher and a choral director, especially enjoys the friendliness of the young members of this amateur choir, comparing it with the professional but strictly disciplined choir back home in which there is little personal conversation.

"This choir allows us to get to know Chinese people as people, aside from the fact that we go there and sing together," Anne says.

"The literature the choir sings is quite amazing to both of us, to see so many young people interested in this particular type of music, keeping it alive." She referred to the core repertoire of the choir - masses, motets and anthems by early European composers such as Palestrina, Victoria, Orlando di Lasso, Gregorio Allegri, William Byrd and Thomas Tallis.

"The repertoire has made it much easier for us to fit in," David says, adding that the works were not only familiar but also sung in original text, not in Chinese translation.

The choir has sung works in Latin, English and Spanish and this year they also tried a piece from Sergei Rachmaninov's Vespers in Church Slavonic.

Yan Shi, an anthropologist and linguist working at Fudan University and tenor in the choir, also serves as a language supervisor.

"To sing all the works in their original languages is certainly challenging but it enables us to deliver the genuine messages in the music," Zhao says. The choristers foster an open and energetic group seeking the true joys of a capella singing.

The Christmas prayer concert on Sunday will be held at the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Zhangjialou in Pudong new Area.

Performers also include a large choir, a children's choir and two professional soloists.

The concert will be staged again on January 2 at the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, near the Bund.

Where to listen

Prayer concert

Date: 7pm, December 26

Venue: Church of the Sacred Heart, Zhangjialou

Address: 151 Hongfeng Rd, Pudong New Area

Prayer concert

Date: 7pm, January 2

Venue: Church of the Sacred Heart

Address: 246 Nanxun Rd, Hongkou District

Christmas music worship

Date: December 23-25, 7pm

Venue: Grace Church

Address: 375 Shaanxi Rd N., Jing'an District

Christmas music worship

Date: December 23-26, 7pm

Venue: Shanghai Community Church

Address: 53 Hengshan Rd, Xuhui District


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