By Katie Lovett
---- — The one thing that audience members can be certain of when the Cantemus chorus takes the stage is that this weekend’s winter concert is not your typical holiday performance.
Instead of the timeless Christmas carols you’ll hear on the radio, in stores or perhaps at other concerts, Cantemus singer Susan Nash says the North Shore musical group offers the audience something a little different, but seasonal all the same.
“You’re not going to hear ‘Jingle Bells,’ you’re not going to hear ‘Hark, the Herald Angels Sing’ from us,” said Nash, of West Newbury. “You will hear something different. But if you look at the title of our program and the list (of songs), it is definitely seasonal. You’ll hear it’s all themed on Nativity and light.”
This weekend, the 42-member chorus, which includes several singers from the Greater Newburyport area, will kick off their 30th anniversary year with “Twilight in New England: A Celebration of New England Composers.” The program features historical and contemporary composers, including William Billings, Randall Thompson, Amy Beach, James Woodman and Gwyneth Walker.
Directed by Jane Ring Frank and accompanied by keyboardist Jeffrey Mead on piano and organ, the chorus includes Richard Blumensheid, Claire Cayot, Gary Lubarsky, Justin Turner of Newburyport; Patti Clark of Georgetown; Nancy Weinberg of Newbury, and Michael Fosburg and Susan Nash of West Newbury.
The group will perform on Sunday afternoon at St. Paul’s Church in Newburyport, following a performance Saturday night at Christ Church of Hamilton-Wenham in Hamilton.
The centerpiece of the program is James Woodman’s cantata “The Midwife’s Tale,” commissioned and first performed by Boston Cecilia in 1996.
“The cantata sets mystical excerpts from the Arundel Manuscript, an 8th-century collection of legends about the life of Christ, in which a midwife to Mary at Christ’s birth tells of her astonishing experience,” Nash wrote in an e-mail.
The piece is “basically a Nativity story,” she added, as it tells the story of the birth of Christ and the birth of light. That theme continues through the entire concert, Nash said.
Each year, the chorus — many of which have been a part of Cantemus for 20 years or more — begins rehearsing for the winter concert in September, Nash said. “As we get closer to the season and deeper into the music, it’s schematic to beginning to appreciate the holiday.”
Often, audience members tell the singers how the concert launches the holiday season for them, as it is always the first weekend in December, she said. The chorus has a reputation for offering an eclectic, high quality program locally.
“You’ll hear a professional program without having to go into Boston,” Nash said.
This is Cantemus’ second year under the direction of Ring Frank, and she continues to challenge the chorus and bring their performances to a higher level, Nash said.
“The programming, what we sing and also how we sing it, is very much determined by who is leading us,” Nash said. “She’s picked stuff for us that we’ve never even heard of, let alone sung.”
The result is a benefit to the audience, she said, as it allows them to hear new music and something apart from the norm.
“It makes us better singers,” Nash said.
As it marks its milestone year, the singers are working to make sure the chorus continues to thrive.
As the chorus celebrates its 30th year, it continues to look for new members, Nash said. While it’s grown quite a bit since Nash first started 25 years ago — back then, the group had 13 singers and one bass. “If that bass had gotten sick on the concert weekend, I don’t know what we would’ve done,” she said. “Fortunately, he never did.”
Today, the group is a cohesive, solid mix, she said, with an ability to perform much more music than was possible when the chorus had only 14 members.
“As we all age, we are looking very much to bringing in younger people,” Nash said. “It can’t just be a chorus of gray-haired people; we have to expand it and bring in younger people.”
By doing so, the chorus ensures that it will continue to exist in another 30 years, she added.
In the spring, Cantemus will continue to mark its 30th anniversary on April 27 and April 28 with a concert celebrating of North Shore artists. It will feature works by New England composers and texts by New England poets.
“We’re celebrating our anniversary by celebrating our area,” Nash said.
IF YOU GO
What: “Twilight in New England: A Celebration of New England Composers.”
When: Sunday, 4 p.m.
Where: St. Paul’s Church, 166 High St., Newburyport
How: Tickets at the door are $20 for adults, $17 for seniors. Admission is free for students 21 and younger. For details, visit www.cantemus.org, or phone 1-888-CHORUS 1. Tickets can be purchased in advance at The Book Rack on State Street in Newburyport.