Traditions are at the heart of the holidays. At Manhattan, one of the most enduring yet ever-evolving traditions is the annual Christmas concert, when the College community comes together for an evening of celebration and song. Every performance is unique, but one in particular stands out in the College’s storied past, when, in the face of extenuating circumstances — the death of a beloved music director — a group of extraordinary students rallied to assemble an unforgettable holiday performance.
Dames, Dances and Distinguished Directors
Fifty years ago in December 1963, the world — and Manhattan College — looked a little different. The then all-male institution had a strict blazers and ties dress code, and the Manhattan Singers, then known as the Glee Club, was the most popular organization on campus. With the Manhattan Orchestra, the club boasted more than 100 members because of its myriad social opportunities: without the presence of female voices, Manhattan toured the northeastern corridor to perform with women’s colleges. Formal concerts would often conclude with impromptu mixers as members of the Orchestra played dance music into the evening.
According to Bill Horn ’64, former president of the Glee Club, the organization’s popularity was equally due to the magnetic energy of their beloved music director, Robert Gary. Before his 17 years at the College, Gary was affiliated with Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians — a touring band that was often featured on radio and TV in the ’50s and ’60s.
A Terrible Shock
Gary’s untimely death in October 1963 sent a shockwave throughout the College community. Students were left without a leader at the busiest time of the concert season. Dates were set. Contracts signed. So Horn, as the Glee Club president, did something unexpected — he took it upon himself to ensure the shows would go on.
“President Brother Gregory and Provost Brother Stephen Sullivan finally agreed to let me go ahead and do it as long as I took responsibility for both of the organizations and made sure that everybody stayed in line. And if anything amiss should happen, I should know that I might not graduate,” laughs Horn.
In need of a conductor, Horn took a chance on 16-year old pre-med freshman Anthony Piccolo, who was known on campus for his talents as a pianist and composer. It was an opportunity that would change Piccolo’s life forever.
“It was a fantastic honor to be even considered,” Piccolo remembers. “I thought, ‘Yes, I could do this.’”
There were big shoes to fill. Piccolo remembers the first time he approached the Orchestra members and noted their perplexed expressions as he, a gangling kid, approached the front of the classroom.
These reactions soon vanished as he gave direction to Song of Christmas — a breathtaking 20-minute piece that tells the story of the Nativity through song and Biblical verses.
An Unforgettable Performance
In December 1963, there were few dry eyes in Smith Auditorim as the Glee Club and Orchestra performed before a standing-room only audience. Representatives from most of the collegiate and professional music societies in the metropolitan area and a large number of people from Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians were in attendance, as well as world-renowned composer and conductor Laszlo Halaszb, the first director of the New York City Opera.
Halaszb, impressed by Piccolo’s talent, offered him a scholarship to the Peabody Conservatory of The Johns Hopkins University, which led him to a flourishing international career as a composer, pianist and conductor. Piccolo still remembers conversations with the Brothers who helped him make the choice that was right for him.
“When I told [Brother Aquinas Thomas] that I was probably going to leave to go study music, he was supportive but reminded me of the importance of general education. I left committed to picking up an education as I went along, which I have done,” Piccolo says.
“It’s really funny — almost scary — how unexpected turns in one’s life lead to other turns, and how you meet significant people in your life,” he adds.
Jaspers Join Together in Song
Today, Manhattan College continues the Christmas concert tradition with A Festival of Lessons and Carols, an hour-long seasonal celebration that combines traditional carols and Advent hymns with Scripture readings and contemporary musical arrangements. Reflections are read by the College leadership, and following the concert, the performers walk by candlelight to the Quadrangle for the lighting of the College’s Christmas tree.
Of carrying on these Christmas traditions, Horn says: “It’s like chestnuts roasting on an open fire — there’s just something about it that smells right, feels right. You’ve got all the romance: the songs, candlelight, the snow and all the sensory elements. It’s all part of an experience that … just sort of overcomes you.”