We are excited and proud to announce that the New Jersey Choral Society’s holiday concert series, Celebration of Carols, featured world premiere performances of songs written by NJCS singers Christopher Vehmas and Rita Blacker. NJCS Artistic Director and Conductor, Eric Dale Knapp, has brought original music to the choir for performances over the years and, more recently, has encouraged NJCS members to compose music for the choir to sing at our holiday concerts.

RitaBlacker.2017jpgComposing and arranging music is a recent, yet exciting, development in the life of Ridgewood musician and singer, Rita Blacker. In 2013, Knapp asked her to write a piece of music for the NJCS holiday concert. Excited by the prospect of composing music, she began reviewing winter poetry and came across the well-known poem “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost, inspiring her original composition “Snowy Evening.” Due to the success of that piece, Knapp invited her again in 2016 to compose a work for the holiday concert, which featured Claudio Monteverdi’s “Magnificat.” Blacker decided to write a piece connected to the spiritual themes in “Magnificat.” The biblical story of Hannah, a scorned and barren woman who prays to God for a child and miraculously gives birth to Samuel, inspired her to write the composition “Hannah Prays,” which received its world premiere in December 2016.

In 2017, Knapp found a prayer titled “Grant Us Peace” from The Gates of Prayer: the New Union Prayer Book, a standard liturgical work for the Reformed Judaism Movement, and asked Blacker to arrange a musical composition for this prayer. She feels that this prayer of peace is timely for our country, because it was written for and read by a rabbi at a UN special meeting on global peace. “The prayer has us look inward to find strength to set an example to the rest of the world that we can live in peace,” says Blacker. 

C.Vehmas.Bel Canto 2017Christopher Vehmas, a 17 year-old musician and singer from Hawthorne, is not your typical teen. In addition to playing soccer, tennis and baseball, he has studied piano for the past 7 years and played guitar for 11 years. He has also been employed as a part-time actor at the Metropolitan Opera for the past six seasons, having appeared in Il Trovatore, Turandot, and Andrea Chénier, and is currently appearing in La Bohème through March 10, 2018. On two occasions Vehmas was invited by Knapp, who tutors him in conducting, to conduct pieces for NJCS. 

Writing music was the next step. Vehmas explains, “After learning the basics of composing from my AP Music Theory class, I was really interested in composing a song of my own. I selected Psalms 5, 142, 148 and 149 and began writing music for the texts. Once I finished the composition, Mr. Knapp reviewed the piece and encouraged me to translate it into Latin so it could be performed during the holiday concert for NJCS. The meaning of this sacred piece,” says Vehmas, “focuses on praise to our King and God as well as his angels and his heavenly hosts. Even the celestial beings such as the sun, moon and shining stars praise His name. Our dancing and music are also a tribute to Him.” “The message of this composition,” says Knapp, “is definitely in keeping with the themes of peace and praise, which are integral in the Celebration of Carols.” Knapp has invited Vehmas to be a guest conductor for his composition, “Laudate Dominum,” which will be performed by the NJCS chamber choir, Camerata.

When asked if she plans to write more music, Blacker replies, “Composing music inspires and challenges me to write more.” She explains that “music is the passion that ignites the soul and breathes meaning and purpose into [her] life. It will always be an integral part of my life, because of its ability to heal, unite and transport.” As for Vehmas, he “hopes to study choral and orchestral conducting in college and possibly music composition, because music has always been an important part of my life. Everyone can enjoy or be moved by a piece of music, and I hope to be able to impact the lives of people now and in the future through music.”

Written by Ethan Galvin, NJCS Publicity Director, with Lori Howard