MORRILTON As a student at Morrilton High School, Preston Sweeden, 54, knew the piano teacher at Hendrix College and became familiar with the college’s annual candlelight carol service, which was, and still is, based on a traditional Anglican holiday service that tells the Christmas story through lessons and carols.
Now, for the 17th year, Sweeden will direct “A Festival of Lessons and Carols” at Morrilton’s First United Methodist Church. The community is invited to the service, which is set for 7 p.m. Dec. 17. Refreshments will be served following the program. A nursery will be provided.
The program will also be given during the regular Sunday-morning service on Dec. 16. All are welcome to that service as well.
Sweeden, who has a bachelor’s degree in vocal music education from Arkansas Tech University and a master’s degree in the same field from the University of Central Arkansas, has been music director at the local church for 20 years.
“I saw ‘Lessons and Carols’ and liked it then,” he said. “I remembered it, and as I read more about it, I thought it would be something we could do here at this church.
“I like the backbone of it — the Scriptures or lessons,” he said. “It starts with the fall of man with God punishing Adam, Eve and the serpent, and includes the covenant with Abraham and the prophets who foretell of the coming of a savior. It focuses on the birth of Jesus. It’s a beautiful service for the Christmas season.”
Sweeden said he prefers this program to a cantata because “you can choose different music each year that works better for the group you have.
“We are really lucky to have a choir with several members who have singing backgrounds,” he said. “For a volunteer choir, they really do a nice job. This program is the musical highlight of the year.”
Each of the nine lessons in the program will be followed by a carol, sung by members of the chancel choir. The Rev. Todd-Paul Taulbee, the church’s pastor, will read the Scriptures.
This year’s carols include “From the Apple in the Garden,” “Hail to the Lord’s Anointed,” “Heavenly Light,” “It Came upon the Midnight Clear,” “Song of Mary,” “O Magnum Mysterium,” “Gloria,” “In the Bleak Midwinter” and “Put Winter Away.” The invitational carol will be “Masters in This Hall.”
The service includes a cappella and congregational singing and will feature the Clarence Mannasmith Memorial Bell Choir; soloist John Gibson; cellist Daniel Cline, who is a professor at Hendrix and a member of the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra; and percussionists Ethan DuVall, Blake Eby and Sean Sweeden.
The bell choir’s presentation of “Bellsong” and Cline’s cello pieces — Schubert’s “Ava Maria” and Bach’s “Minuet I” and “Minuet II” from Suite No. 1 in G Major — will open the program. The processional hymn will be “Once in Royal David’s City,” and the recessional hymn will be “O Come, All Ye Faithful.”
Sweeden said the choir would perform the premiere of “Gloria” after the seventh lesson telling of the shepherds going to the manger. “Gloria” is an original piece of music dedicated to the choir and composed by his son, Sean Sweeden, 25, who is a graduate music student at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.
Preston Sweeden and his wife, Pat, who is from Russellville and teaches third grade in the Morrilton School District, also have a 22-year-old daughter, Mallory, who is studying early childhood education at Arkansas Tech. All of the Sweedens are involved in the upcoming musical program.
Preston Sweeden was born and raised in Morrilton. He met his wife when they were both students at Arkansas Tech.
“During my last two years at Arkansas Tech, I worked at First United Methodist Church as organist/music director,” he said. “My home church helped me finish college and begin my church music career. So it is special that I began my current position as music director in September of 1992.”
Sweeden has also maintained an independent piano teaching studio in Morrilton for 20 years. And he does freelance work as an accompanist; he plays both piano and organ. In his earlier years, he taught general and choral music in public schools and sang and acted in musical theater. The Sweedens lived away from Morrilton for a while but moved back to be closer to their families.
Members of the Morrilton First United Methodist Church Chancel Choir are Helen Allison, Kathy Bryan, Paula Carter, Dr. Stephen Carter, Pat Donnell, Darren Drone, Beth DuVall, Gay Lyn Eby, Brandon Faciane, John Gibson, Mack Gibson, Nan Gibson, Shandee Gordon, Daniel Grear, Leann Haynes, Sally Hughes, Norma Johnson, Robert Liebendorfer, Amanda Lunsford, Emily Oates, Kay Osborne, Stephanie Smittle, Mallory Sweeden, Pat Sweeden, Sean Sweeden, Val Temple, Kendra Thomas and Katy Yerina. Zoe Butler is the organist/pianist.
Members of the bell choir, who are also members of the chancel choir, are Kathy Bryan, Zoe Butler, Pat Donnell, Beth DuVall, Amanda Lunsford, Mallory Sweeden and Pat Sweeden.
For more information on “A Festival of Lessons and Carols,” call the church office at (501) 354-4077. The church is at 201 S. Chestnut St. in Morrilton.