“We had to bring in extra chairs! … People were excited for this and were looking for things like this to do again,” said Shawn Mack, Diocesan Festival Choir director and director of sacred music in St. Anthony of Padua Parish, Red Bank.

The Diocesan Festival Choir’s return to Advent season performances with “Messiah” was embraced Dec. 1 by a packed church in St. Anthony Parish of Padua and another enthusiastic turnout Dec. 4 in St. Joseph Church, Toms River.

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The last time the choir performed in conjunction with the St. Anthony’s Parish choir and the Orchestra of the Society of St. Cecilia, also part of the parish music ministry, was in December 2019, when the groups performed Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Cantata 140.”

“Needless to say, when I had to speak at our first performance in St. Anthony’s, I got a bit emotional,” Mack admitted. “It was almost three years to the day that we had performed together like this. The choirs and orchestra have performed major works like this in a Christmas and spring concert each year since 2013, but with the pandemic everything stopped … It was so sad to have to cancel the concert planned for spring 2020.”

Not only was this the first post-pandemic performance, but it was also the first time a second concert was performed during the Advent season at another church in the Diocese. “The choirs work so hard to put this together, so we were all thrilled to be able to do a second performance,” he said.

The singers and orchestra performed Part 1 of George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah” and the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Part 2 – “because people expect it now!” Mack noted. “In addition to the Messiah, we have a tradition of singing Christmas carols at the end of the concert, which is always fun for the audience to participate in.”

When Mack received the green light from his pastor, Father Alberto Tamayo, to bring back the concert series this season, “I knew I wanted to do Messiah again – everyone loves [it], and for good reason because it’s absolutely beautiful,” he said of the work he first performed as a high school student.

The work clearly lends itself to the Advent season of preparation for the Lord’s coming, Mack emphasized, noting, “You just need to look at the texts … [which] are all taken from Isaiah and the Gospel of Luke. Isaiah prophesies about the coming of the Savior, and Luke’s Gospel points to Jesus as that Savior. I can’t think of a better way to prepare for Christmas.”

Mirroring the groups’ first concert season in 2013, the choirs and orchestra plan to perform “The Seven Last Words of Christ” by Theodore Dubois this coming April.

Currently the Diocesan Festival Choir comprises 24 members from various parishes throughout the Diocese, a number Mack referred to as “small but mighty.”

“There is no audition process, although reading music is definitely a plus, because we move fairly quickly in rehearsals,” he explained. “We split our rehearsals between St. Robert Bellarmine Co-Cathedral, Freehold, and St. Anthony’s, held on Monday evenings from 7 to 9 p.m.,” with only a few rehearsals before each performance, Mack confirmed.

The choir also sings for many significant diocesan events, including the Bishop’s Anniversary Blessings Masses, Rite of Election, Chrism Mass, ordinations of priests and deacons, the diocesan pilgrimage and more.

Feedback for the December concerts was “very, very positive,” he exclaimed. “People were asking us to come back to St. Joe’s again! I loved being able to bring this to another parish in our Diocese … Everyone was pretty emotional and excited to get back to it!”