E. Sibley Leads Raleigh Boychoir in
by John W. Lambert
December 19, 2008, Raleigh, NC: Anxiety was in the air in the fall of 1968. We were involved in an unpopular war in a distant land, and some of us were making preparations to go there. Others, like Thomas E. Sibley,* had given their service to the country far earlier and had resumed more or less normal lives — graduate school, teaching, or whatever, sometimes accompanied by public service of other kinds. The then coordinator of music for the public schools here (and, on the side, the organist and choir master of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, at the corner of Brooks and Clark, in the capital) sensed a need and proposed — to the Women's Club and other organizations — the creation of a boy's choir to serve the region, a choir that would provide some musical training, true, and also discipline, a sense of teamwork, and a measure of gentility. And so it was that, early in the Advent season of 1968, the Raleigh Boychoir made its first major public splash with a concert called "Carols of Christmas," an event that provided a measure of solace and a time for contemplation in the then otherwise busy lives of our citizens.
For many years, these events were given in Hayes Barton Baptist Church, generally on the first Sunday of Advent. This was a time when the Christmas season didn't start weeks before Thanksgiving; instead, these concerts, by this choir, eventually came to mark the true beginning of the holiday season, not only for the boys and their families and friends but also for increasingly large crowds of folks who found Sibley's generally concise program a refreshing mix of traditional and unusual fare, presented in a beautifully decorated sanctuary by young men done up to resemble angels on earth, if only for an hour or so several times a year.
Of course, Sibley didn't do this back then and for the intervening two score of years single-handedly. The programs always involved other artistic partners and guest participants, and a constant presence has been Joan Sibley, the director's principal backstage problem solver, whose discreet but ever-reliable work allowed many a performance to proceed without any evident hitches, even when locked knees felled youngsters from the backs of risers or when illness or stage-fright — or whatever — threatened.
Think about it! Forty years of devotion and dedication to a cause, an artistic cause! Someone should pin a medal on that guy!
And if he'd stood still on Friday evening, in Edenton Street United Methodist Church, someone might have done just that. But Sibley was his usual animated self, just a tad slower on his feet, perhaps, but alive with watchfulness while conducting, and at the end of the program he took his departure by a side aisle, as his charges processed down the center. But we've managed to sidestep the concert itself, which was the main objective of the evening.
The crowd curled part way around the side of the church 30 minutes before the program was to begin, and the parking lots were nearly full — always a good sign for a concert! This is a huge church, and the crowd filled it quickly, so the program itself began only a minute or two late, when pianist Perry Townsend, an alumnus of the RBC, and William J. Weisser, at the Letourneau pipe organ, launched into a quodlibet on "Lo, How a Rose." The traditional processional, led by an RBC banner, was Gauntlett's "Once in Royal David's City," but this time there were more people than usual: the 30 or so members of Choirs I & II were joined by 13 "Resident" choristers and an alumni choir of close to 40 singers, resulting in quite a parade by the time everyone reached the front of the church. Several numbers — by Ord and Simsion — were sung from just in front of the altar, perhaps a mistake, given the distance from the congregation; for the rest of the program, the singers were forward, on the steps leading up to the choir loft, from which position there was a greater sense of immediacy. There were attractive arrangements of Austrian and French carols by David Stocker, handsomely accompanied by a small group of strings.** Long-time RBC accompanist Vicki Oehling provided piano support for many numbers, including a lovely version of "I Saw Three Ships." Edward Elgar's exquisite "The Snow" brought the strings back, and pianist Michael Braz accompanied his own adaptation of Margaret Kirk's "Follow the Light."
Along the way were two special numbers, each directed by its composer, given in tribute to the choir and its founding conductor. Perry Townsend contributed "Nativity," a fine pastiche of familiar carols, sung with considerable vibrancy; and Bruce Tippette, also an alumnus of the choir, offered "Christmas Night," a richly varied, handsomely crafted number of great appeal — it was probably the highlight of the evening — in which the boys were joined by the alumni singers.
Mention must also be made of a short appearance by the Resident Choir, clad in red robes and directed by Robert Unger. These young men sang from memory, unlike their senior brethren, and it seemed to make a big difference, in terms of their projection and their diction, too. Unger has been announced as Sibley's successor, and it is clear that the RBC will continue to be in good hands, leadership-wise.
The program ended with a wonderful medley of carols, arranged by Alice Parker, followed by a solo from former chorister Edward Nicholson that surely was supposed to have been amplified. The grand finale was "O Holy Night," "Jesse's Carol," and "Silent Night," which has for years been used as the RBC's recessional, complete with battery-powered candles. Sibley took his departure as the singers left but was given a huge round of applause following an announcement that this was his final outing with "Carols of Christmas." Thank you, Maestro; you have enriched many lives and touched many hearts.
*In the interest of disclosure I should note that my wife has known the Sibleys for over 50 years. Somewhat later, he was organist and choir director of our church; and one of our sons sang in the RBC for several seasons.
**The assisting artists included violinists Lucy Turner and Eleanor Detriville, and cellist Chris Jones.