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Annual Christmas concert comes amid 50-year milestone for Zillah Community Choir

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Some people are singing the word “majesty” with extra precision these days.

“Sing this with focus. Practice at home singing ‘majesty,’” Gary Fendell, director of the Zillah Community Choir, advised members last week after they performed the song of the same name.

Practice happened as usual Tuesday evening at Faith Community Church, but Fendell’s suggestions to the nearly 30 singers attending were even more crucial. Their annual Christmas concert is set for 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the church at 300 W. Centennial Drive.

It will be well-attended — it always is — so come early for a good seat.

“We will have that place packed, absolutely packed,” said Fendell, who has arrived more than an hour before previous Christmas shows and found guests waiting in their cars.

Some come from afar; he’s expecting visitors from Spokane and cities along the Columbia River, along with others from the Tri-Cities, Yakima and elsewhere.

“I call it our gift to the community,” he said of the free performance.

This show is particularly special because the Zillah Community Choir is celebrating its 50th anniversary this month. It began when 13 people approached Fendell, then the music teacher at Zillah High School, and asked if he would work with them to practice some holiday songs for a performance.

Then and now, the goals of the Zillah Community Choir are the same.

“There are two main purposes — to sing a lot of good music and to have a good time,” Fendell said.

Rick Beck, who joined the group in September, has found the choir a friendly bunch of folks with impressive talent. Ranging in age from children to grandparents, they come from Zillah, Grandview, Sunnyside, Granger, Union Gap, Toppenish, Wapato and Yakima and practice at 7:30 p.m. every Tuesday except July and August.

New members are always welcome, no auditions necessary. The choir presents two to three concerts a year, sings at retirement centers and nursing homes, public events and conferences, and as occasional guests of other singing groups such as Bel Canto and the Camerata Club.

“Everyone ... respects what everyone else can do. It’s kind of an easy group to assimilate into,” he said. “Every week you find out a little bit more about each and every person.”

While new to singing with the Zillah choir, Beck is known to Valley vocalists. He directed the Music Masters singing group for several years. He also taught music in Zillah schools more than 30 years ago and worked with the community choir in that role.

“They have a good time, enjoy singing and are very open to other people coming in,” said Beck, who saw the choir perform with Bel Canto of Yakima, a women’s singing group, last spring and started thinking then about joining.

His expertise as the German teacher at West Valley high and junior high schools adds even more emotion to Thursday’s playlist, which amid classics features a nontraditional yet touching song by Faith Hill, “A Baby Changes Everything.” The choir will perform “Christmas 1914” and along with that, Beck will be singing “Silent Night” in German.

“Christmas 1914” recalls the night when some German and British soldiers battling in the trenches in World War I lay down their arms to celebrate the holiday together with songs, games and fellowship. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the end of WWI, and it’s also the 200th anniversary of the writing of “Silent Night.”

“I’ve been to the chapel” on the site of the church in Austria where “Silent Night” was first performed, Beck noted. The church was destroyed in a flood.

Beck will be among 34 people expected to perform Thursday, Fendell said. Numbers are a little off due to illness, but almost every singer will be there.

They include soloist Mistie Barfus of Moxee and Gary’s wife, Jean, accompanist Carmen Smith, assistant director Michael Brant and assistant accompanist Carmen Still.

“They just bill themselves as the two Carmens,” Fendell said of the pianists, who will share the spotlight in a double piano Christmas concert at 7 p.m. Dec. 21 at the Zillah Church of the Nazarene, 203 Miles Drive.

Carmen Smith’s son, Reagan, is among the younger singers in the choir. Along with his vocal talents, he plays the piano, performs in a handbell number and is learning — quickly — the drums. Fendell works with him and others individually to help them excel.

Jean is also in the choir and admits that while members take their roles seriously, they have fun, too.

“It’s like a family. We have a great time and everybody gives Gary a hard time and you’d think we were all junior-high age, but it is fun and Gary makes it fun,” she said.

Her husband confirmed that practices can be more unpredictable as shows draw near.

“When they get a little closer to concert time, they get a little extra squirrely because of the tension, but they always come through,” Fendell said with a chuckle.

Beck enjoys it all and thinks others should experience it, too.

“It’s enough fun that I’m willing to drive from Yakima to Zillah once a week,” he said. “I’m really enjoying it.”

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