The Willapa Harbor Chorale’s performance last spring at the Raymond Theatre. At the center of the photo is longtime chorale director Rick Gauger. (Photo by Keith Krueger)

Willapa Chorale performs for the 47th time

By Vivian Edersheim

For The Daily World

“Oh, come, oh, come, Emmanuel … Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel…”

Willapa Harbor Chorale’s 38 singers will intone the Christmas hymn’s solemn, soulful notes as they enter the Raymond Theatre at 7 p.m. Sunday. For the next two hours, the choir will perform traditional carols and popular novelty songs to entertain an audience that often fills all of the theater’s 320 seats.

It will be the group’s 47th Christmas event and 94th concert since its first performance in 1969. It simply wouldn’t be Christmas in Raymond without the chorale’s holiday concert.

Rick Gauger, director the past 33 years, enjoys the choir’s closeness. “The longer I work with it, the more I think we are like a family. We get mad at each other, we laugh at each other, we cheer each other. They harmonize so much better when they have that feeling together.”

Gauger began singing with the choir in 1972 and became director in 1983. A few years later, she lost her own soprano voice to throat cancer. Today, she says, “The choir is my voice.”

This season’s concert features Gauger’s favorite piece of music, “Oh Jesus, My Savior, my song in the night, come to us with thy tender love, my soul’s delight.”

“It’s not especially Christmas but a religious song. I just love it; I play it every day on the piano. It’s prayerful. Sheila Marie, the first time she sang it, said, ‘oh, we can use this at church.’” Marie is the pastor at Willapa Methodist Church and a fairly new addition to the choir.

Gauger said choir membership is open. “We don’t have tryouts. Anybody who walks through the door can join.” Some have been with the chorale for decades while others sing along for only a performance or two.

“One joy for me has been to watch people continue to sing,” Gauger added, mentioning longtime choir members Russ Davis and Dick Mergens as examples. Mergens no longer sings with the choir, leaving the role of “eldest” to Ena Bale, who turns 87 in late December.

Bale has been in the choir more than 25 years. “I enjoy singing and I sang in our church choir from 1948 until we didn’t have a choir anymore, about eight or 10 years ago. I especially enjoy singing the Christmas cantata. My favorite piece this year is ‘Believe,’ from the movie ‘Polar Express.’”

Age is not a factor in membership. The choir often includes young singers from local junior and senior high schools.

“Music is the language of the soul,” Gauger tells choir members. “It’s good for our health, our mental health and physical health, and we just all need to keep singing.”

A written history of the choir traces its roots to Raymond High School teacher Jerry Holmes and Marcia Pittsenbarger who had worked for several years with the Grays Harbor College Adult Education Program to get a community chorale started in Pacific County. Early choir members were awarded Grays Harbor College credits for participation. Later, the chorale separated itself from the college to open its membership to others.

Gauger was hesitant about becoming director when she was first approached in 1983. “I had sung in choirs but I didn’t know if I could direct,” Gauger recalled. Now, “I enjoy it immensely even though I can’t sing anymore. I can still make music, it’s important to me to still make music.”

Piano accompaniment is an important part of every performance. James Worlton is the current accompanist, replacing Beth Ginther who filled that role for many years. More recently, Connie Bevington added flute to the program, then Lew Chapman became a member and added brass to the mix. This year’s concert also will feature a violinist, Karen Tully – perhaps a new tradition in the making.

Early performances were held in local churches, with limited seating often keeping the audiences fairly small. When the group was invited to hold events in the Raymond Theatre, the invitation was quickly accepted and has worked well for the chorale for more than 20 years. The theater’s exceptional acoustics, as well as its stage and lighting capabilities, opened new opportunities for the choir.

A reception is held after each performance at Elks Lodge 1292, across the street from the theater, typically with audience sharing their excitement directly with the performers.

The chorale performs once more after its formal event in the theater. Monday it will sing half the concert selections at the Alder House, an assisted living facility in South Bend.

But the most moving number will be the choir’s “adieu” Sunday evening. Once more lining the aisles with only candles lighting the way, choir members embrace the Christmas spirit as they exit the theater singing:

“Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright…”