Hallelujah Chorus: Bosque Chorale’s Christmas concert of Handel’s “Messiah” dedicated to memory of founders-singers Steve Watson & Joy Williamson
CLIFTON -- There’s a custom with audiences of Handel’s Messiah to stand during the Hallelujah! chorus, which is said to have originated when King George II first heard the piece in London in 1743. So enthralled by the beauty of the music, or so the story goes, King George stood. Not wanting to offend the king, the audience followed suit. And so, the tradition continues today.
Selections from Handel’s Messiah, which served as the debut concert for the Bosque Chorale on December 11, 2009, will once again be heard at the Bosque Arts Center’s Frazier Performance Hall. Also featured in the “Messiah” concert Dec. 9 will be the eight-person string Brazos Chamber Orchestra with Dr. Cameron Hofmann on piano.
When the Bosque Chorale was being organized 12 years ago, both Steve Watson and Joy Williamson brought lifetimes of talent and their passion for music to the effort. Both passed away since the last Bosque Chorale concert, and their Bosque Chorale friends will honor them with a performance of special music presented in their memory on Dec. 9.
“Steve Watson and Joy Williamson did as much as anyone to get the Bosque Chorale started and to bring joy to hundreds over the years,” commented Bosque Civic Music Association President Donna Jarman. “This work, Handel’s Messiah, was very special to both Steve and Joy’s hearts.”
A mainstay during the holiday season, the Baroque-era oratorio still awes listeners 280 years after the composer’s death. Thanks to the stunning crescendos, familiar choruses on the greatest story ever told, it is one of the most famous and widely shared pieces of music in history. The Messiah offers a loose narrative on the life of Jesus -- the first part prophesizes the birth of Jesus Christ; the second exalts his sacrifice for humankind; and the final section heralds his Resurrection.
Even though the oratorio was initially written as an Easter concert, especially Part One and the finale Hallelujah! chorus are part of beloved Christmas holiday traditions across the world. The concert will be the first presentation by the Bosque Chorale in two years.
Watson and Williamson were both living when the group last performed on Dec. 12, 2019. It would also be the last time Bosque Chorale audiences would hear Watson’s beautiful voice. The loss of his voice only days after the concert was the first sign of an aggressive cancer that took his life less than six months later.
Then COVID-19 shuttered the doors to the Bosque Arts Center in March 2020 and restrictions put the Chorale on hold for the next 18 months. The Dec. 9 concert will be both a homecoming for the group and a celebration of beloved friends.
Many members refer to Watson with affection as a founder and chairman of the Bosque Chorale. The Waco native and Baylor University graduate began playing piano and singing in church before he learned to read. Watson’s musical talents and energy were extensive and he touched others through his commanding performances as both a vocalist and pianist in church congregations and civic groups throughout Central Texas. Watson’s drive played a large role in the formation of the Bosque Chorale in 2009, and his support never wavered. He was involved in each production and every detail of the Chorale and helped lead the group for 11 years until his untimely death in June 2020 at the age of 59.
Watson’s influence in the Chorale was so great that following his death the BCMA named their annual scholarship in his honor and used donations to establish the Steve Watson Piano Lab at the Bosque Arts Center. The lab has five Yamaha keyboards and volunteer instructors teach students of all ages throughout the year.
Like Watson, Joy Trotter Williamson was a dynamic talent who brought her decades of experience as an educator to the Chorale during its formation and served as its initial director. In December 2009, it was Williamson who directed the Chorale in its first concert for the public, also selections from Handel’s Messiah and presented at Trinity Lutheran Church in Clifton.
Williamson began her music journey at age 13 conducting church choirs alongside her pastor grandfather. Her father, Hugh Trotter, was a Meridian bank president and mayor. Williamson graduated from Clifton High School in 1952 and enrolled at the former Clifton Lutheran College where she studied music and sang in the choir on the third floor of the historic 1923 Administration Building. One of the performances she participated in at the Clifton College nearly 70 years ago was Handel’s Messiah.
When the college closed in 1953, the property became the location of Gearench Manufacturing (now Petol) before becoming home to the Bosque Arts Center in 1981. The third floor was beautifully restored in 2017 and Williamson rejoiced in seeing the old hall so close to her heart once again filled with beautiful music and voices. The 98-year-old auditorium now serves as the permanent home for Bosque Chorale concerts and was renamed the Frazier Performance Hall.
Williamson was a Baylor University graduate who spent 45 years as a public school music educator and choir director. Students lovingly called her “Mrs. J,” and she inspired young people with her love for music in school districts for more than 45 years in Orange, Houston, El Paso, Ysleta, Carrollton-Farmers Branch, Meridian and Clifton school districts. She also lent her talents to the music ministries of numerous congregations.
Upon returning to Bosque County, Williamson first sang at First Methodist Church of Meridian, and finally served as choir director at First Presbyterian Church in Clifton, where Watson was a member of the choir. While Williamson only directed the first concert for the Chorale in 2009, she subsequently sang in most of them until recent years when declining health silenced her voice.
Chanda Robertson was a member of the Chorale when the group’s first concert was presented in 2009 and she’s been a part of all but one during the ensuing 12 years. She knew both Watson and Williamson well and considered them friends. Robertson praised their contributions to the Chorale and said Williamson “always made everyone feel important. Joy was always fun to be around and always willing to laugh at herself.”
“She probably didn’t weigh a hundred pounds,” recalled another charter member of the Bosque Civic Music Association regarding Williamson. “By this time she was in her mid-70s, but she was a dynamic presence, arms flying everywhere. You couldn’t help but be in awe of her talent and energy.”
Williamson died in April at the age of 86. She is survived by her two daughters, Julie and Janet, as well as two granddaughters and three great-granddaughters.
Punky Penberthy, another member of the Chorale since the beginning and former president of the Bosque Arts Center, said of her late friend Joy Williamson, “She was very proud of her years at Clifton College. It was traditional that Handel’s Messiah was performed annually in Clifton at the time and Joy treasured the idea of it being the Chorale's first concert performance. She poured all her energies into that first concert to make sure it was the very best."
And Penberthy said this of her late friend Steve Watson, "From the beginning he poured his heart and soul into the Bosque Chorale. Music was Steve's passion. And the Bosque Chorale was the place he called home. It was his dream come true.”
“He was everything to the Chorale,” Robertson agreed of Watson’s contributions. “He would step in if the director was sick or absent. He could conduct, he could sing every part and he played the piano beautifully. He could step right in, at any time, without notice to run rehearsals. And he always did it happily.”
The Messiah is being directed by longtime Bosque Chorale maestro David Anavitarte. Anavitarte is a director local audiences have come to enjoy for his abundant talents and towering stage personality. Anavitarte began his association with Bosque Chorale with the spring 2013 concert and the upcoming production will be his seventeenth time to lead the Chorale. He has worked with both Williamson, and especially Watson, on each of those directing experiences.
“Steve and Joy were both major parts of the Bosque Chorale,” Anavitarte said. “They were the heart and soul of what the Chorale did and what they have become. They will be greatly missed.”
While born in Germany, Anavitarte grew up on the east coast and can trace his passion for music to many evenings as a child spent observing rehearsals for the Philadelphia Orchestra. He began playing piano at the age of seven and has been involved in music ministry and teaching most of his adult life. His formal education includes multiple degrees in voice, music and conducting.
In addition to his role as music director and conductor for the Bosque Chorale, Anavitarte has served in the same capacity for the Brazos Chamber Orchestra since its inception in 1998. He also serves as worship and music ministry director at Granbury First United Methodist Church. He is the music director and conductor of the Brazos Chorus, a mixed auditioned ensemble that performs two major works a year.
Anavitarte and his wife, Kathy, are parents of two adult children. Daughter Donielle is a RN married to a firefighter and paramedic. Son Devin is a teacher, chaplain, Christian playwright and author. They have one granddaughter, Katelynne.
When the Bosque Chorale presents Handel’s Messiah Dec. 9, one can’t help but think the audience may also stand during the rousing finale of the Hallelujah Chorus. And while doing so may be partly rooted in a time-honored custom for a job well done, it will no doubt also be with genuine affection and appreciation for Watson and Williamson. A final gesture of gratitude for dedication to the music they loved, and for the joy and the blessings their talents brought to untold others through the years. And that is a life worth singing about.
The Bosque Civic Music Association was organized in 2008 as a subgroup of the Bosque Arts Center which governs the Bosque Chorale. Please check the BAC website for ticket reservations and availability, or contact the BAC at (254) 675-3724.
Chisholm Country's Simone Wichers-Voss contributed to this story.
Photos by SIMONE WICHERS-VOSS
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