Over the past two decades, the Olympia Choral Society’s free Christmas concerts have become one of South Sound’s holiday traditions.
“There are a lot of people who come and look forward to it every year,” said Connie Newman, who’s been singing with the choir since its first concert on Dec. 8, 1998. “Their Christmas just isn’t Christmas without a Choral Society performance. I’ve heard that many times.”
But it’s a tradition that will end this weekend — at least for now.
Society founder and director Terry Shaw is taking a break for an indefinite period to spend more time with his family and write songs. Not that he’ll have that much free time: He teaches choral music and coaches wrestling at Timberline High School, coaches football at Rainier High School, and is music director at St. Mark Lutheran Church in Lacey.
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The Choral Society aims to end on a high note with “The Best of Christmas Past,” a program focused on what Shaw and his singers see as the best of their previous concerts.
Shaw’s selections include “My Lord Has Come,” a contemporary carol by Will Todd, and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”
“It’s one of my absolute all-time favorites,” Shaw said of the latter. “It just makes me happy when we sing it.”
The concert will open with the German carol “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming.”
“That was the very first song that we sang at our very first Christmas concert,” Shaw said in a phone interview last week. “That was the start of the whole thing.”
He plans to have a small group sing before the full choir enters, a symbolic nod to the group’s beginnings. At the Choral Society’s first performance, there were 15 singers; now there are 75.
The audience has grown, too. “We had 55 people in the audience that night,” Shaw said, “and we were just ecstatic that anybody showed up to hear us.”
These days, between 2,500 and 3,000 people come to hear the annual Christmas concerts.
“We encourage people to show up early,” he said. “We open the doors 30 minutes before each show, and there are usually 300 people waiting to get in.”
The concerts attract all kinds of people, said Shaw, who last month won a Governor’s Arts Award for his contributions as a Young Arts Leader.
“We exclude nobody,” he said. “Everybody has the opportunity to experience our music. It doesn’t cost them a dollar. Because of that, we have some of the most diverse and varied audiences you could imagine. We have people who show up in suits and ties, and we have people who show up in ripped jeans with messy hair or whatever.”
He’s proud of having offered free music to the community for so many years and of having raised about $150,000 for local nonprofits. Donations are accepted for a different nonprofit each year. Proceeds from this weekend’s performances will go to the North Thurston Education Foundation, which helps students in need and gives grants to teachers in the North Thurston School District.
Though this is its last concert for now, the Olympia Choral Society will perform — along with the Timberline Symphonic Choir, which Shaw leads — at the Olympia Symphony Orchestra’s April 22 concert. “We’ll be the choir for Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony,” he said.
And sooner or later, the society will be back.
“I know I'm not done,” Shaw wrote in an open letter on Facebook.
“I love what we’re doing here,” he said last week. “The people in the choir are awesome. They’ve been awesome for 20 years. We’ve made a lot of great music.”
“It’s been a real joy,” Newman agreed.
The Best of Christmas Past
What: The Olympia Choral Society celebrates 20 years of music by revisiting favorite Christmas songs from past concerts.
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday (Dec. 8); 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday; and 2:30 p.m. Sunday
Where: Koval Center for the Performing Arts at North Thurston High School, 600 Sleater-Kinney Road NE, Lacey
Tickets: Free, with donations accepted for the North Thurston Education Foundation
More information: olympiachoral.org