Community chorus presents yuletide concerts this weekend
The Jamestown Community Chorus was only 3 years old when Ruth Caswell joined the group. This year she is celebrating 60 years as a member. In fact, at the time she joined the chorus, it was still a club at the recreation center known as the Exchange of Topics and Crafts. One of the club’s activities was choral singing.
Rita Murray founded the Jamestown Community Chorus in 1949. “She was a wonderful person and very talented,” said Caswell, who sang with the founder. “She did a lot with the chorus.”
Caswell and her husband Chet, a Navy captain, spent a number of years overseas before settling in Jamestown. They sang together in the chorus for a number of years, until his death a few years ago. Although she has since moved to Saunderstown, Caswell continues to sing with the Jamestown chorus.
Caswell, who is an alto, didn’t do much singing in public prior to joining the group. It was her husband’s naval assignments that played a role in her decision to give it a try. Caswell said that she knew her husband would be away on duty for extended periods of times, and she needed a way to stay busy. Her mother-in-law belonged to a chorus. “I was living with her at the time, so I joined also,” said Caswell.
According to Caswell, there have been many changes to the chorus over the last six decades. She recalls that at the time she joined, stage and screen star Nelson Eddy’s father and stepmother were singing with the group. The couple lived in town.
“It was interesting to know as the years went by that they were once in our chorus,” Caswell says.
Caswell said that the type of music that the chorus performs – a blend of show tunes, classical music and holiday favorites – has remained largely the same over the years. She added that the Christmas music has always been popular with the audience. While last year’s Christmas concert featured a small orchestra, this year there will be a harp player.
“We’ve never had a harp player before,” she said. “This should prove very interesting.”
While Caswell enjoys the show tunes and holiday music, she is particularly fond of singing music that is not heard quite as often. She also likes a challenge.
“I sang with my church choir growing up, but never joined any group, even in school. I enjoy expanding the types of music that I sing.”
Caswell said that music is something that everyone should enjoy. She is hopeful that young people will join the chorus, which presently has a number of older members. Caswell acknowledged that it’s hard to get young people to join, but she expressed hope that that would change.
“I think music is a very important thing in our lives,” she said.
B.J. Whitehouse, who has directed chorus for 24 years, said that Caswell is one of his favorite people on the planet.
“I don’t even know where to start because she has been one of the most faithful members, obviously, and even up until recently, has functioned as a section leader,” Whitehouse said. “She has done just about anything to keep this chorus going over the years.”
Whitehouse added that there have been times when he’s had to tell Caswell to go home because she insisted on staying and cleaning up when everyone had gone.
“She would be the last one out of the church after rehearsal,” he said. “Her work ethic is unbelievable, and she’s just one of the nicest people you’d ever want to meet.”
Jessica Wilson has been with the chorus for seven years. She also serves as the group’s publicity coordinator.
“Ruth is one of the loveliest people in the chorus,” Wilson said. “I really enjoy singing with her. Her presence is always so cheerful. She’s a treasure.”
Wilson added that she finds it remarkable that an institution like the chorus has been preserved in a small community like Jamestown for such a long time. She said it’s also amazing that one person has been involved in it almost from the beginning.
According to Caswell, as long as her voice holds up and her health remains good, she will continue to sing with the chorus.
This year’s Jamestown Community Chorus holiday concert is titled “A Celebration of Carols.” The performances will take place on Saturday, Dec. 8, at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, Dec. 9, at 3 p.m. Both shows will be held at Central Baptist Church. The chorus will perform Benjamin Britten’s “A Ceremony of Carols.” The singers will be accompanied by Hyungjung Choi, the principal harpist of the Rhode Island Philharmonic.
Whitehouse said he was surprised that the chorus hadn’t sung the Britten piece in nearly 20 years. The last time it performed Britten’s carols, Choi had accompanied them.
“I was shocked to think that it was that long ago,” Whitehouse said. “So it’s time to do it again. It’s a piece that needs to be done by choruses like ours. It stretches us a great deal.”
The second half of the concert will include English carols as well as popular holiday songs like “Feliz Navidad” and “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town.” The concerts will also include a sing-along and will close with the chorus’ interpretation of Handel’s “Messiah.”
Tickets are $12 for general admission, $10 for children and seniors. They will be available at the door. Tickets can also be reserved in advance by calling Whitehouse at 423-1574.