SANFORD — Dressed in black and red – the girls wore scarves, the boys had bow ties – the singers of the Sanford High School Choir began singing Franz Gruber’s “Silent Night” before their large audience.
The young vocalists sang the beloved carol two ways: vocally, of course, but also, simultaneously, through sign language, employing all the right, graceful gestures to tell the story of the night Christ was born. And then, the singers fell silent and performed the song once more, through signing.
The audience remained hush, as well, save for a couple of babies and toddlers who made such noises as they’re known for – apt sounds, given what the song “Silent Night” is all about.
When the choir finished signing “Silent Night,” the night was silent no more: the audience broke into applause.
There were many high points during the “Spirit of the Season” Holiday Concert that the Sanford High School Choir, Band and Chamber Singers and the Sanford Junior High School 6th Grade Choir performed for the public on Monday, Dec. 17. “Silent Night” was one of them.
So too was the SHS Choir’s feisty rendition of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” a decades-old holiday tune that has come under some social criticism in recent years, as you might have heard. Chorus Director Jane Kirton playfully prepared the audience for the song, saying, “Okay, this is the one,” and noting that the students were the one who wanted to perform it. Those students know their audience: hundreds of people erupted into cheers and applause as the beleaguered song got under way.
Those were just a couple of moments among many that people will remember. And now it’s time to reveal the concert’s venue: the Sanford Performing Arts Center at the new Sanford High School and Regional Technical Center. The production on Monday evening was the first-ever to take the stage at the new auditorium, which has its own entrance and boasts one of the largest stages in Maine, breathtaking sound and light capabilities, and more than 850 seats.
“Can you believe this is in Sanford?” Brett Williams, the center’s director, asked the audience moments before the curtains parted for showtime.
Decades have passed since Sanford has had such a facility – you’d probably have to go back to the days of the Capitol, the grand movie theater that closed in the late 60s but offered a stage and about a thousand seats during its decades of heydays at the corner of Main Street and Route 202 downtown.
During a brief intermission, Superintendent of Schools David Theoharides thanked those who had a hand in achieving the vision of a performing arts center at the new high school. Theoharides asked Sanford High student Andrew Auger, the evening’s skilled lighting technician, to bring up the lights, so that he could ask Williams and members of the Building Committee, School Committee and SPAC Committee to rise from their seats and take a well-deserved bow. Theoharides also thanked those associated with the Gerard and Gertrude Genest Charitable Fund, which generously shared its resources to help make the new performing arts center possible.
Theoharides also thanked the voters of Sanford, who in 2015 approved the additional funds for the construction of the center – taxpayer money that went above and beyond the $92 million that the state’s Department of Education approved for the high school’s construction.
“This theater is paid for by all of you, and we thank you,” Theoharides said.
In his remarks on stage, Williams mentioned the Sanford Schools Legacy Foundation’s ongoing “Have a Seat” Campaign for the performing arts center. For a one-time gift of $100, a person or a group of people can dedicate one of the seats in the auditorium to anyone or any group they wish. Funds raised by the campaign are going towards the purchase of production equipment not covered by taxpayers, according to Williams.
To date, more than 450 seats have been sponsored, according to Williams. The center has more than 850 seats, so more than enough naming opportunities remain.
For the $100, the donor can have a small plaque with three lines of engraved text, each with 24 characters, affixed to the armrest of their seat. This plaque will remain on the armrest for the lifetime of the seat – and, given the quality of the chairs, made locally by Hussey Seating in South Berwick, that could presumably mean “the better part of the next century,” Williams said during an interview this past summer.
The night’s entertainment included Dr. Morton Gold on the center’s Steinway Grand Piano and ended with SHS Band Director Joshua Champagne conducting as the band performed and the choir and the audience stood and sang such beloved favorites as “Deck the Halls,” “The First Noel,” and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”
The new Sanford High School officially opened in October, providing a $100-million, state-of-the-art institution of learning for local students. Three leaders who took the stage on Monday night – Williams, Kirton, and Champagne – are all alumni of Sanford High School; Kirton graduated in the '70s, and Williams and Champagne did so in the '90s. Each expressed their delight over the new auditorium, a facility that is above and beyond the days when plays and concerts and other special presentations were staged in the cafeteria of the former Sanford High School.
Kirton thanked Nancy Neubert, the music teacher at the junior high, for her leadership with the sixth-grade singers. She also told everyone in the audience, “I’m so happy you’re here to celebrate this fine evening with us.” She praised her young performers, singling out her Chamber singers in particular, noting, “We call each other our family away from home.”
Champagne expressed amazement as he regarded the auditorium from the stage.
“As a Sanford alum myself, it’s incredible to see this auditorium,” he said.
And Williams? The man behind the scenes, who, since his hiring in January, has overseen every aspect of the performing arts center’s construction, from those earlier days when it was simply an empty space with nothing but dirt for its floor, to that moment, last week, when it was finished and ready for showtime? He was all smiles on Monday evening.
“I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to hear applause in this room after years of construction and banging and clanging,” he told the audience.