There may be no lack of songs to listen to during the holiday season, but there is something about choral music that is particularly moving to the Christmas spirit.
First Presbyterian Church’s stellar Music With A Mission free concert series returns Dec. 2 with a Christmas performance led by Grammy award-winning operatic baritone Kurt Ollmann and the Savannah Arts Academy Choir.
Ollmann began his renowned career with the Skylight Opera Theatre in Milwaukee. In 1982, he moved to New York where he became a protégé of the legendary Leonard Bernstein and one of his preferred singers. Ollmann has appeared on some of Bernstein’s award-winning recordings, including “West Side Story” and “Candide.”
“I began working with Bernstein when I was 25,” Ollmann said. “It was certainly a formative musical relationship for me. I think the most important lesson I learned is that you must respect the score with all your mind and come to music with an open heart. There is no room for posing or pretense.”
Since moving to Savannah in 2014, Ollmann has been a regular performer for Music With A Mission. After initially being invited by Rebecca Flaherty to participate, Ollmann has organized and performed a concert each of the past five seasons.
“We usually get our biggest crowd when he does a show because he involves other local musicians from the community,” said Anne McNair, music director for First Presbyterian Church.
This year’s performance will include Flaherty, Bill Lavonis, Bill Smith, May Dibbern and others.
This is the second year Ollmann has invited the Savannah Arts Academy Choir, having worked with them in 2015.
“I haven’t done a lot of work with them directly, but I admire the quality of their work and their fine conductor Russell Watkins,” Ollmann said.
The program, which ranges from Johann Sebastian Bach to shape-note singing, offers some imaginative song selections.
“There are some songs that will be very familiar, like "Gesu Bambino," and then others people may have never heard of,” McNair said.
The unique program even includes a Mexican carol about a cowherd who brings tortillas to the manger.
Although the concert is free, donations at the event will benefit CASA, Court Appointed Special Advocates.
“The volunteers are appointed by the court to advocate for a child that’s been abused or neglected.” explains McNair. “They work with the children in the court, but outside of the court, as well.”
Ollmann is just returning from a singing tour in Europe, where he has been teaching master classes and collaborating with young artists as part of the Bernstein at 100 worldwide celebration.
“Kurt is such an asset to the community and we’re lucky to have him,” McNair said.