Home, at last: Morristown church music director takes her turn with beloved Christmas Singers, Dec. 20

Sarah Michal, director of music ministries at the Morristown United Methodist Church. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Sarah Michal, director of music ministries at the Morristown United Methodist Church. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
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Following a legend is tough.

But for Sarah Michal, director of music ministries at the Morristown United Methodist Church, things are getting easier.

Sarah Michal in conducting mode at the Morristown United Methodist Church, December 2018. Photo by Dave Sullivan
Sarah Michal in conducting mode at the Morristown United Methodist Church, December 2018. Photo by Dave Sullivan

“It feels like home,” Michal said this week. Proof of that will come this Thursday, Dec. 20, 2018, when she takes a turn with The Christmas Singers, who will present their 31st annual holiday concert at 12:15 pm.

This event, perhaps more than any other, was synonymous with June Van Thoen, who retired in 2016 after leading music programs at the church for 29 years.

Trained in sacred- and choral music at the famed Westminster Choir College, Michal will lend her mezzo-soprano voice to several numbers with Patricia Ruggles and R. Wayne Walters –who were original Christmas Singers with Van Thoen–and new members Elena T. Bird and Robert Long.

Sarah Michal conducts the choir at the Morristown United Methodist Church. Photo by Dave Sullivan
Sarah Michal conducts the choir at the Morristown United Methodist Church. Photo by Dave Sullivan

“I love making music with other people. It’s not a competition. It’s: ‘Look at the great fun we have putting on a Christmas concert together!'” said Michal, 32, hired two years ago to succeed Van Thoen.

“We’re going to have a good time doing a wonderful program,” echoed Walters, former director of the Morris Choral Society.

Rehearsing with Michal has been a joy, he said. In addition to being “a very open, fun-type person,” Michal “has a nice soprano voice and it will blend nicely” in an eclectic mix of traditional carols and lighter pieces.

Michal’s church duties include leading the 18-voice Chancel Choir, two children’s choirs and a nine-member bell choir, and shepherding the long-running Music at Noon and Abendmusik series. Separately, she also conducts the New Jersey Gay Men’s Chorus.

Church members have welcomed her from the start, Michal said, thanks partly to gracious introductions by Van Thoen before she left for her native Richmond, Va.

For about a year, Van Thoen even made a point of skipping church services during return visits, to give her successor a chance to establish herself, said Michal, who attended the nondenominational Calvary Chapel while growing up in Fresno, Ca.

“She encouraged people to get to know me, and not expect me to be her. June really set me up for success…She said she was happy for me, telling people, ‘It’s like my child is getting married–and I like the fiancé,'” Michal recounted.

‘GROWING AS SINGERS’

Vince Cattano has sung bass in the Morristown choir for years, alongside his mom Bonnie (soprano); his wife Maria (soprano); and his son Andy (tenor).

Cattano acknowledges it’s been a bit of an adjustment singing for someone new; Van Thoen left “huge shoes to fill.” But he credits Michal with introducing new techniques and perspectives.

“It’s been wonderful,” he said. “We’re all growing as singers.”

Which conductor is the sternest taskmaster? Cattano wouldn’t touch that one with a 10-foot baton.

However, he noted Michal’s “got a way of getting the results she wants without us even knowing it. I wouldn’t say it’s always painless. But you put the work in, and hopefully you get the results she’s looking for.”

Sarah Michal, music director at the Morristown United Methodist Church, Dec. 17, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Sarah Michal, music director at the Morristown United Methodist Church, Dec. 17, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“She’s really picky about syllables and pronunciation,” tenor Charlie Buck said with a laugh.

The 20-year choir veteran praised Michal’s energy and music skills. “She kept the quality of the choir up, with June leaving. It’s still at a good level,” Buck said.

At first, soprano Jane Rehmke related, it was a shock to take directions from someone younger than her own children. Yet, like her predecessor, Michal pays close attention to musical detail, injects “great doses of spirituality,” and brings a husband with a good bass and a sense of humor, Rehmke said.

Michal also is stretching the choir’s repertoire, adding songs in German and Latin–the sorts of challenges that have kept Rehmke singing for decades.

“She’s convinced the choir that we can do the tricky rhythms that early music requires,” Rehmke said. “She’s really been a blessing.”

Michal studied music education at Fresno Pacific University, where she met her husband, Matthew Michal, now a mathematics lecturer at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. He often sings bass or plays wind instruments or bells in his wife’s choirs. The couple lives in Madison.

Michal views music as another way to teach Scripture; Vivaldi’s Gloria took the place of a sermon last weekend. When she’s having a rough day, she may sing to herself The Lord is My Shepherd or other inspirational verses.

She said she especially enjoys conducting, and shaping solo voices into a more perfect whole. As long as singers are committed to showing up and giving their best effort, she is confident in the outcome.

“If you can walk, you can dance. If you can talk, you can sing,” Michal insisted.

You just need a little faith.

Thursday’s concert by The Christmas Singers, presented in memory of deceased congregation members Jackie Wiley and historian John Cunningham, is free. A luncheon will be served at 11:30 am ($8 / $7 for seniors); the half-hour show starts at 12:15 pm. The Morristown United Methodist Church is at 50 South Park Place, fronting the Morristown Green; call 973-538-2132 for more.

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