While each Nova Singers concert is special, their first in-person holiday program in two years is this weekend and likely to be particularly meaningful and emotional.

Under the direction of Dr. Laura Lane (director of choral activities at Knox College), the choir will present two performances of “Peace, Love, Joy!” — Friday, Dec. 10 at 7:30 p.m. at First Congregational Church, 2201 7th Avenue, Moline, and Saturday, Dec. 11 at 7:30 p.m. at First Lutheran Church, 364 E. Water Street, Galesburg.

In order to keep everyone safe, these concerts are only open to those who are fully vaccinated. Audience members will be required to show proof of vaccination at the door and wear a mask. Singers will all be masked; there will be no intermission and the program will be approximately 60 minutes long.

“The reason that we have to be so strict and show proof of vaccinations, for the audience members too, is that we have a lot of singers who have little children, who have not been able to be vaccinated,” Lane said of the 19-member group Wednesday. “We have people with babies and they’re scared to catch something and bring it home, and so you have to be super careful.”

Nova Singers performing a holiday concert at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Davenport.

While in Nova’s 36th season since founding the ensemble, Lane pre-recorded the 2020 holiday concert outdoors and streamed it online last December (while hosting it live). They resumed indoor rehearsals in late August 2021, and did their first concerts with audiences since the pandemic on Oct. 16-17 in Davenport and Galesburg, then with 15 singers all fully masked and distanced.

“I am thrilled that I’m able to be back together with my singers in person, actually rehearsing and preparing to perform,” Lane said Wednesday, noting the October concerts (just 40 minutes of music) were very well-attended. “They were very short, on the cautious side, but we’ve been rehearsing and performing with masks on the whole time and some distance. And people came in fact in October, huge crowds.”

“They’re doing it and it’s kind of amazing,” she said of the singers. “I didn’t expect it to sound when I listened to the recording of the October concert – I didn’t quite expect it to sound as good as it did.”

While Lane conducted wearing a mask in October, she had a hard time breathing, so this weekend she decided to lead without a mask.

Lane rehearsing outdoors in Galesburg in preparation for the filmed 2020 holiday concert.

“What they missed when they don’t see my mouth is my smile and the full range of my emotions,” she said. “I try really hard to show it with my eyes, but it’s not the same. For example, there’s a song on this upcoming program that is from the point of view of a mother who has lost her child and she’s grieving and she’s keening and you can really feel the grief.

“Oh my God, the depth of her love and the depth of her pain in the loss,” she said. “It’s so deep and it’s so emotional and my mouth is showing that.”

Since they started back in late August, Lane has been rehearsing and performing with a mask the whole time. But she spoke with professional conductors around the country and went to a Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert in October, and everyone was wearing a mask except the main soloist and the conductor.

“I said, why is it OK for the conductor to take off their masks and the answers I got consistently were three things. The first one was a conductor can’t express the full range of emotions with a mask on,” Lane said, noting the conductor is not singing or playing an instrument.

“The conductor is using their face expressively, but they’re not actually putting out big amounts of aerosol. It’s really different,” she said. “And if a conductor, of course, is vaccinated and everybody in the room is vaccinated, it’s only one person in the room. And I found out that this has been true the entire time for ministers and preachers of all kinds. They took off their masks when they’re preaching.”

Lane is professor of music and director of choral activities at Knox College in Galesburg.

When Lane led Nova in October, she is typically very active and athletic in her motions, and felt very short of breath.

“I asked all the singers to vote and they all unanimously said, we want you to take off your mask when you’re conducting us,” she said. “Because they knew that I was fully vaccinated and boosted, and I was far away from them and then I wouldn’t sing to them. So, I’m going to get to do it for the first time.”

Appreciating being back with audiences

Lane and the choir are profoundly grateful to be back singing to audiences.

“It’s so incredible. It’s so exciting to me,” she said Wednesday. “I’m thrilled that I get to do a holiday program with Nova Singers, and with a live audience this time of year, especially. I was so excited for October that my heart was pounding the entire time and I couldn’t sleep the night before.”

The poster for this weekend’s Nova concerts.

“I’m so excited because it’s been a hard thing for conductors and people who live and die for choral music — people who, actually, like it’s their number-one passion,” she said. “Think of what they give up to come down (to Galesburg) — to drive an hour each way for each two-and-half-hour rehearsal and then drive back. I mean, they’re giving up a lot of time and they have to prepare all the music before they even come and they have to work on the music in between each rehearsal.”

“They are giving up so much time away from families and work and then their own personal time to do this, their commitment level is just as high as mine. It’s really incredible,” Lane said. “And for all of us to live without that — it shows you how much we loved it. And then to live without that for almost two years, it’s been very, very hard.”

She and the board and singers agonized about how to come back this year, to sing safely together. At their first rehearsal back inside, when Lane heard everyone laughing and talking together, she knew it was the right choice.

“They were so happy to be there, and I heard them sing. And I saw how happy they were and how comfortable they were to be there,” she said.

New pieces and new singers

Lane also is excited since there are several new singers this year, and new pieces on the holiday program.

“It’s an extremely intimate thing, what we do rehearsing together. And the level and depth of communication that goes back and forth between me and each singer,” she said. “One of the exciting things is that in the last five to 10 years, I have been able to bring in new singers that were equally strong, equally talented, equally hungry — hungry and ready to commit and really wanting to work this hard. It’s kind of amazing.”

“Some of the youngest ones most often tell me, after the first rehearsal in August, one of the new singers said, ‘Thank you. You saved my life. I’ve been depressed for a year and a half’,” Lane recalled. “I feel like I’m okay. Now, I feel like there’s going to be something that can be something beautiful in the world.

A Nova Singers holiday concert at First Lutheran Church in Galesburg.

“Some of the youngest ones who have really suffered during this time, the people who are young, first-year teachers, or people who have never been in a group like this and it’s just life-changing for them,” she said. “It’s amazing, the level of talent and ability, and beauty of sound and commitment of the new people. It really is. And to me, what we’re doing right now sort of feels like a miracle.

“I can’t believe that Nova Singers can do what we’re doing now, after not having been together for so long,” Lane said. “It really is miraculous. That’s how it feels for me.”

She appreciates having audiences there, so rapt and quiet and connected to the music.

I can feel them when I’m in a piece of music,” Lane said. “I can hear every single person in the crowd behind me. I can feel them, I could feel the energy. I could tell whether they’re leaning forward and listening with their mouths open.”

“It’s really an interesting thing that performance adrenaline allows me to do,” she said, noting one of her favorite holiday pieces will be an encore, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

“I love it so much and it’s a sweet little way of saying, thank you, thank you to the audience,” Lane said. “There’s one part that has a deeper meaning than ever — a phrase that goes, ‘Faithful friends who are dear to us, gather near to us, once more.’”

“What does that mean right now? Oh my God, we keep being together, right? We can be together with our family members, maybe for the first time in two years. People are gathering and we miss the people that we’ve lost some of them, who aren’t there.

“So that’s the kind of thing I’m talking about,” she said. “A song that is both really sweet and really tender and loving and beautiful, and full of love is also a little bit bittersweet, when you’re in a moment like this and some people that you love have passed away.”

The holiday program includes a work by Black composer and choral director Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943)

“I love every single piece on this program, but there are a few works I am really excited for the audience to experience,” Lane added. ” ‘Listen to the Lambs’ by Nathaniel Dett is full of drama, passion and variety and features a sweet soprano solo. Bring Us, O Lord God, by William Harris, is one of the most exquisitely beautiful works we’ve ever sung, with its double-choir texture, gorgeous harmonies and sensitive part-writing. ‘Contre qui’ is my personal favorite of Morten Lauridsen’s choral works and I’m thrilled with the nuance and intimacy of expression the singers are bringing to it.

“Plus, for those who have never heard Michael Barrett’s ‘Indodana’ live, well, it is hard to describe the depth of the emotional impact. I also love the exuberance and effervescence of ‘I am Loved,’ and the non-stop energy and joy of ‘A Haitian Noel’.”

Tickets for this weekend are available at www.novasingers.com or at the door. Admission is $20 for adults and $17 for seniors (62+). Students are admitted free of charge. For more information about tickets, recordings, or other Nova Singers events, call 309-341-7038, or e-mail nova@knox.edu.

“Peace, Love, Joy!” is sponsored by Blick Art Materials and The Register Mail. Nova Singers’ 2021-22 season is partially funded by grants from the Illinois Arts Council Agency and the City of Galesburg.