Story By Paul Janes Brown, Photo: Kay Kunisawa
What an honor it was to have Robert E. Wills as our soloist and choir master for the 10:30pm Christmas Eve service!
Mr. Wills prepared the choir rigorously for several weeks on the Sussex carol. While the work was quite simple compared to other pieces the choir has sung at Christmas, it was a challenge because many members were away for the holiday. Rev. David Kawika Jackson (Associate Priest at St. John’s and Chaplain of Seabury Hall) and his son Caleb took part to swell the men to three. Wills also sang with the men. Joy Sarrell Au (who Mr. Wills recruited for the occasion) and Gloria Mason joined with Cathy Burton, Joy Williams and Adele Kunisawa to round out the women.
Mr. Wills was a joy to work with. Like all great artists he has some very strong feelings about how best to prepare. For example, no humming before starting to sing, no tapping of the feet and no highlighting of one’s part. Apart from the music and the notes, he worked very hard on proper pronunciation. He encouraged us to roll our R’s in Christ and Christmas and to say “nyews” instead of “news.” It made a big difference, not only in our sound, but also in the clarity of our enunciation.
Mr. Wills, who is Roman Catholic, hails from Minneapolis. He has been a member of the Minnesota Opera, Minnesota Chorale, and the Edgewater Eight as well as the music director for the Minneapolis JCC Orchestra, the Nativity Choir, Maternity of Mary Choir, the St. Paul Community Orchestra and the 3M Women’s Chorus.
Mr. Wills has been a church music director for 42 years. His baritone solo and conducting career have given him the opportunity to give five concert tours of Europe including conducting twice at the Basilica of St. Peter in the Vatican and concerts in Dublin, Rome, Assisi, Venice, Vienna, Munich, Lucerne and Jerusalem. Mr. Wills has appeared as Soloist for the opening concert of the Sixth World Choral Symposium with Minnesota Orchestra, Chanticleer and Harlem Boy’s Choir.
He has also appeared as a soloist with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, Duluth Symphony, Austin Symphony, Rochester Symphony Orchestra and the Minnesota Music Fest and the Maui Pops. In 2009 in won the Hawaii Art Song competition, joining other Maui champs, Leighanna Edwards Locke, Debra Lynn and Lisa Paulson.
He is the founder and director of the Maui Summer Masterworks Festival with performances in 2010 of Mozart Requiem K. 626 in 2010, in 2011 of Vivaldi concerto for two trumpets, Mozart Vesperae Solennes de Confessore K. 339 and Bach Magnificat in D major BWV 243 and in 2012 with performance of Haydn “The Creation.” Bob is founder and director of the newly formed Maui Chamber Orchestra. Bob was the music director and conductor for the August 2013 MAPA production of Les Miserables at the Castle (MACC).
As a matter of musical interest, the Sussex Carol is popular in Britain, sometimes referred to by its first line “On Christmas night all Christians sing.” Its words were first published by Luke Wadding, a 17th-century Irish bishop, in a work called Small Garland of Pious and Godly Songs (1684). It is unclear whether Wadding wrote the song or whether he was recording an earlier composition. Both the text and the tune to which it is now sung were discovered and written down by Cecil Sharp in Buckland, Gloucestershire, and Ralph Vaughan Williams, who heard it being sung by a Harriet Verrall of Monk’s Gate, near Horsham, Sussex (hence “Sussex Carol”). The tune to which (St. John’s Choir) sang is the one Vaughan Williams took down from Mrs Verrall and published in 1919.