As important as their high school reunion, Norwalk High School's former musicians also return to their alma mater to attend its annual Candlelight Concert. Since 1936, the high school has invited all of its former students to join members of the community each December to enjoy an evening of holiday and classical music.
"There were only two years during World War II when the concert wasn't held," said Susan Pettibone, the head of Norwalk High's music department and choir director. "Many people look forward to coming to this annual event, and there are a lot of traditions associated with it."
Two special alumni attending this year's concert are the school's new orchestra director Jen Burkhalter and director of the school band, Chris Rivera. "They're both my former students and now they're my colleagues," Pettibone said. "It's wonderful to work with them because they know what's expected of our music program. We love having them come back to work as educators."
The Norwalk High School Candlelight Concert is slated for 8 p.m. Monday, Dec. 20, Tuesday, Dec. 21 and Wednesday, Dec. 22. All alumni are encouraged to attend the final performance, which is typically designated as Alumni Night.
Pettibone pointed out that one of the annual traditions is that all former students stand and sing portions of "O Holy Night" with the 550 singers onstage. "The soloists for this song are also traditionally members of the senior class," Pettibone added. "We also always end the Candlelight Concert with `The Hallelujah Chorus.'"
Ryan Swick, 17, will be performing for his fourth and final year in Norwalk High's Candlelight Concert. He is one of the special soloists and will also sing with a select men's quartet, called the MenHarmonics. For the first time, Pettibone will have the young men serenading ticket holders in the lobby, as they wait for the auditorium's doors to open.
"This is an amazing tradition that we do each year at Norwalk High," Swick said.
"I look forward to the variety of songs that we perform."
A graduate of Ithaca College's music education program and former cellist with the Norwalk High School's orchestra, Burkhalter returns to the Norwalk High School stage as an educator, not a performer. She said that it's going to feel "surreal" to be leading the ensembles that she used to play in.
"It's awesome to be back," Burkhalter said.
A resident of Norwalk, Burkhalter worked for two years at Trumbull High School before joining Norwalk High's music department this fall. She was attracted to her hometown's stellar music program, she noted.
"A lot has changed, though. The music program has grown so much. There are now three orchestras, one for first-year students, one for sophomores and juniors and then the group that's by audition-only, which will play in the upcoming Candlelight Concert," Burkhalter explained.
Burkhalter said that she is especially looking forward to conducting many of the traditional musical compositions that she used to play as a student in the pit orchestra.
"Almost all of the pieces are things that I've played before in high school," she noted. "It's going to be a bit strange to be on the other side conducting this year, but I'm really excited."
Rivera, a member of Norwalk High's Class of 1998, is also happy to be back at his high school. A resident of Shelton, Rivera had previously led the town's middle school's music program for five years. Rivera is now responsible for Norwalk's marching band, three concert bands, two jazz bands and a performance ensemble. "It feels great to be here, and I'm looking forward to this year's concert because I'll be seeing it from a different perspective," Rivera noted.
Norwalk High School's Candlelight Concert has become a staple of the community's holiday happenings. Pettibone stated, "Many people come back year after year because it puts them in the holiday spirit. It's a great way to kick off the season."
In past years, the concert quickly sold out so the high school's music department decided to add a third performance to its concert schedule.
"Even with the additional performances available, there are some years where it sells out," she said.
Seating is not reserved and ticket holders are encouraged to arrive early to get a seat.
"We will have some fun pre-concert activities going on," Pettibone noted.
Tickets for Norwalk High School's Candlelight Concert are $4 and may be purchased by mailing a self-addressed, stamped envelope with a check made out to Norwalk High School to Susan Pettibone at Norwalk High School, 23 Calvin Murphy Drive, Norwalk, CT 06851.