This Shining Dawn: CWU Christmas candlelight concert illuminates darkness

New CWU Choir Director Dr. Lamartine ignites transformation in Ellensburg concert debut


Katherine Camarata

CWU chamber choir performs at This Shining Dawn concert directed by Dr. Lamartine.

Katherine Camarata, Lead Editor

A hush drew over the full-to-capacity pews of the Methodist church as lights overhead darkened to a mere whisper, the CWU chamber choir filing into the sanctuary each holding a single lit candle, circling around the pews as the audience’s gaze followed the vocalists who took turns reading lines from a poem titled “This is the Task/Create a Great Emptiness.”

Layers of heavenly vocals calmly pierced the air as performers strode up and down the aisles throughout This Shining Light, a concert by the CWU chamber choir featuring contemporary and classic Christmas pieces aimed to transmute darkness into light. 

Donations from the concert benefitted the HopeSource youth recreation scholarship program. Before the chamber choir took the stage, Jan Jaffe directed the Valley Voices Community Choir whose performances included two original songs by local composers: “Ring the Bells” by founder of the choir Lee Bates and an adaptation of the Emily Dickinson poem “Hope” by CWU Music Professor Dr. John Pickett. 

At various points, members of the chamber choir stood on either side of the pews, those in the center aisle facing the walls and those on the perimeter facing inward to create an immersive, surround-sound experience heightened by the dimmed lighting and flickering flames.

“When I was teaching at the University of Wyoming, I came up with this candlelight concert format,” Lamartine said. “The students get to experience different styles of music, the concert runs from beginning to end without any stops, we create an energy and a through-line of experience for the audience, and we’re breaking down that wall of audience and performer.”

A performance of the song “Rainbow Connection” was a heartwarming start to the concert as choir members whimsically strolled up the aisle. 

Transformational lines from renowned poets and historical figures like Rumi, Thich Nhat Hanh, Chief Seattle and Aztec prayers were recited and drawn from as inspiration for the production. Many of the spoken word introductions before songs were written by students in the chamber choir based on writing prompts in Dr. Lamartine’s class.

Lamartine said the quote by Rumi repeated throughout the evening, “If everything around you seems dark, look again, you may be the light,” were some of her favorite words of the evening. She said Ellensburg Poet Laureate Marie Marchand’s poem “Witnesses of Dawn” was another favorite moment of hers, and said the line “We emerge wisdom-keepers, peace-seekers” resonated with her.

Marchand wrote “Witnesses of Dawn” specifically for the occasion; she said it was her dream to be part of one of Lamartine’s concerts. 

“The poem is about the thread of connection between us all, and what we can learn from our healing journey,” Marchand said. “It’s about the power of persistence of light within each of us, and how we can help each other by sharing that light.”

Marchand said she was invited to chamber choir rehearsals with Lamartine to discuss her poem and mental health experiences.

“I had a wonderful conversation with the students, and then they sang a song for me,” Marchand said. “The next day, I received 25 handwritten notes from them. I feel a connection with the students and I’m so grateful that poetry and music brought us together.”

Marchand’s poem recited by the students said: “Cleansed by the darkness we enter the light, eager to engage, eager to create.” 

The students proceeded to thump their chests and stomp their feet in rhythms accentuating a song titled “I am Power,” a favorite of CWU chamber choir performer Jaykub Willis.

“‘I am Power’ always gets to me, ‘Build it Better’ always gets me because the concepts of being broken and rebuilding yourself to become whole again … you can be at your lowest but somewhere, there is still light and it is waiting for you,” Willis said.

The powerful connectivity of emotion

Lamartine and her husband Jeff Seldon on guitar collaborated for an emotional ballad titled “Build it Better”; the whole choir joined in by the end of the song sharing the message, “You always build it better the second time around.”

Lamartine said she has been performing with her husband for years and considers the candlelight concerts a special opportunity for them to sing together.

“I love singing with Jeff and I love what he brings to the concert,” Lamartine said. “I think it’s an opportunity for the students to see that music making doesn’t end when they leave college, that you can find a partner with whom you can make music for the rest of your life.”

Tension swelled among the audience and performers as the dynamics of the choir shifted drastically between songs. The entire performance seemed to be a continuous, spiraling breath in and out, and the continual string of sound was a favorite feature for chamber choir member Moira McGregor.

McGregor said she hoped, “that people come away a little bit more whole and that they can see the light that they bring and that they put out into the world.”

Feeling permeated the audience as certain members of the choir were moved to tears by the words they shared. Lamartine emphasized that emotions are information and should be allowed to happen in the moment.

“I was particularly moved by Velia Saldivar’s prose that she read about her circle of luminosity, and that the people who bring light to the world are doing the hardest work,” Lamartine said. “When my students get emotional, that, to me, says that they’re trusting themselves, trusting each other, and trusting the process of sharing the music in a vulnerable space.”

Lamartine said she felt a responsiveness in the air moving about the church.

“I felt a certain energy in the room where the audience was allowing themselves to listen and listen deeply, and probably listen in ways they haven’t been able to for a long time, probably because of the pandemic and a lack of live performance,” Lamartine said. 

Willis said he hoped their performance was able to shine a “beacon of light” for attendees.

“The music that we create and we share is a gift and it is so special to give that gift and to hear the audience clap,” Willis said. “They’re saying thank you, and to me that is the most special gift anyone can give.”

The exchange of giving energy was abundant as the concert drew to a close after the audience couldn’t help but sing along to “Silent Night,” and the evening wrapped up with nearly five straight minutes of standing ovation from the packed church. 

As students lingered to mingle, hoping to catch a moment with Dr. Lamartine after the show, director of the Valley Voices Community Choir and founder of Make Music Ellensburg Jan Jaffe said, “I was not prepared for the all-encompassing experience of this chamber choir tonight, that theatrical storyline and flow of the whole thing. I think Nicole Lamartine is amazing and clearly her students really love her.”