Elite choir concert Dec. 14 in Northampton to benefit Toy Fund

NORTHAMPTON — When choral director Tony Thornton started working with Northampton singer William “Brit” Albritton to form a choir this spring, he was looking to create a group of advanced singers who made it through rigorous auditions.

But instead of having an exclusive feel, he pictured a group that would be a big part of the Valley and would help its residents.

“I wanted to do something that would involve the community more,” said Thornton, director of choral activities at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, in an interview from his campus office. “We wanted to start off with a bang and do something to benefit the community.”

They decided to make the choir’s debut performance a holiday concert that would benefit the Gazette-sponsored Sidney F. Smith Toy Fund, which provides vouchers to help local families buy holiday gifts for children. The fund, now in its 81st year, began during the Depression to help needy families.

Thornton said Albritton suggested the idea because he had taken part in toy fund benefit concerts in the past. “I love giving toys to children, so I said, why not?” Thornton said.

The Illuminati Vocal Arts Ensemble’s benefit concert is set for Dec. 14 at St. John’s Episcopal Church on Elm Street in Northampton.

Albritton, the acting chorus manager, said the elite singers look forward to lending their voices to help the fund.

“The arts are struggling everywhere, so the arts themselves are a good cause, but it’s really nice to be doing something just for others,” he said this week. “We’re just doing it because we love music and we want to help others.”

The two have been working since the summer to audition and organize the 28-member choir, called the Illuminati Vocal Arts Ensemble to represent the way music “can illuminate every part of the human spirit,” according to Albritton.

Thornton, an Alabama native who spent most of his adult life in Los Angeles, moved to Amherst five years ago when he took the job at UMass. Several area singers had asked him over the years to start a choral group, and this year he finally agreed to do so.

He and Albritton publicized auditions in July, expecting not many singers would be both interested and advanced enough for the “strict” audition requirements.

“We got way more than I was expecting. I thought we’d probably get 40, if we were lucky, at the audition, and I’d pick 15 or 20,” Thornton said.

Instead, 90 people from around the state and as far away as Connecticut and Vermont auditioned.

After 10 sessions of auditions in August and September, he chose 28 of the best vocalists, he said. “The thing about this group is they come prepared,” he said.

Because they are so advanced, he said, he can assign them the pieces for the concert and they will learn them at home. They will rehearse just five times before the Dec. 14 concert.

In addition to performing traditional and not-so-traditional holiday songs, the ensemble will sing “Rejoice in the Lamb, Rejoice in the Lamb,” by Benjamin Britten. Albritton said the piece, composed in 1943 for a church in Northampton, England, is appropriate because it is the 70th anniversary of its writing, and the 100th anniversary of Britten’s birth was Friday.

“It will be a nice mix of familiar and maybe some new things,” Thornton said. “We’ll involve the audience in a few, too.”

Albritton said the Illuminati Vocal Arts Ensemble plans to put on the benefit show every December.

“We want to make it an institution,” he said. Thornton said supporting the toy fund makes the concert truly special.

“It’s more meaningful to know you’re not just singing, but contributing to the community,” he said.

The concert will be from 8 to 9:30 p.m. Tickets are $15 for general admission and $10 for students and seniors. They will be available at State Street Fruit Store in Northampton, Cooper’s Corner in Florence, and A.J. Hastings in Amherst beginning Dec. 5, and some will be reserved for sale at the door.

The Sidney F. Smith Toy Fund, named for a former business manager at the Gazette, provides certificates to eligible families who can use them to buy holiday gifts at participating local retailers. Donations to the Toy Fund may be dropped off at or mailed to the Daily Hampshire Gazette, 115 Conz St., Northampton, MA 01060, the Gazette bureau at 9 East Pleasant St., Amherst, MA 01002, or made through Gazettenet at www.gazettenet.com. Checks should be made payable to the Sidney F. Smith Toy Fund.

Rebecca Everett can be reached at reverett@gazettenet.com.