Editor’s note: Vina Mogg is the mother of a former West Orange High School choir student. She wrote this piece about West Orange choral director Dr. Jeff Redding, who has been a guest conductor for the Candlelight Processional at EPCOT this season.
The conductor stately walks down the corridor toward us.
The tails of his tuxedo are perfectly pressed, the pleats of his starched white shirt under the lapels perfectly parallel, and his endless toothy smile reaches from cheek to cheek when he sees my mama and me. Once, he was the kind of unruly boy my mom used to teach. Decades later, he has harnessed his boundless energy into bringing out the power of music into young people as the West Orange High School choral director.
He bends over to kiss mom on the head. “Hello, Mama,” he says as she looks up to him from her wheelchair. A smile of recognition lights up her face even though it has been eight years since she has last seen him, when he was her conductor in a Christmas choir.
“Hello,” she smiles endlessly back, squeezing his hand.
After a hug he turns and marches toward the stage entrance.
I have watched Dr. Jeffery Redding conduct award-winning high-school choirs beneath the lights of Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco, in the ancient colosseum of Verona and in the courtyard of San Marco Plaza in Venice. But tonight, I watch his elegant tails march toward the stage of the American Gardens Theatre at EPCOT in Walt Disney World to lead the time-honored tradition of the Candlelight Processional, a Christmas tradition that Walt Disney himself began more than 50 years ago.
Redding takes the honored position behind the podium to conduct the 50-piece orchestra and 300 voices of the Disney Voices of Liberty, Cast Member Choir and auditioned high-school choirs.
The tradition of story and song together this holiday season seems to bring comfort and joy to a world full of randomness. Many are drawn to the comfort of this familiar message, this familiar music, these familiar words we have heard over and over in our heads for years.
These words spoken and sung tonight bring tears to my eyes as I watch my 91-year-old mama, sitting next to me in her wheelchair, her Alzheimer’s disease-riddled mind brought clear this night through the power of music, song and story. I see her face radiate with joy. I watch her hands moving gracefully to the music, mimicking the elegant movements of Redding’s on stage. She turns to me and smiles.
“He is such a good conductor,” she says.
This mama of mine, who one month ago was in ICU, suffered a mild stroke, an infection and rounds of tests and antibiotics, is a completely different person next to me, her whole body swaying and clapping and singing to the familiar songs of “Joy to the World,” “Silent Night” and her favorite:
Fall on your knees, oh hear the angel voices.
Oh night divine, Oh night, when Christ was born.
Oh night, O Holy Night,
Oh night divine.
Tonight is a divine night, as I see my mama transform through the power of music, transform as she watches my friend bring to life and draw out from these voices and instruments the power and glory of the words and the notes so often heard but not truly experienced.
I am one of the first to stand as I hear the strings start up the familiar introduction to Handel’s Messiah. Mama also tries to stand, but her legs are too weak. I grab her hand, and together, we wave our clasped fingers to the powerful chorus and the strings and brass and percussion of the orchestra.
Mama’s words are very few lately. But tonight, her words are crisp and clear: “King of Kings and Lord of Lords. And he shall reign forever and ever. Forever and ever. Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!”
Timeless words and melody that my mama revels in, body and soul. In this present moment, when all for her is crystallized in time, in place, in right now, this beauty is all that matters.
I may not have many moments with her like this. But this one Hallelujah chorus will be eternal in my heart.
The performance is over. I don’t want this time to end, but I turn up the walkway to push Mama’s wheelchair up the aisle.
I hear his familiar voice near the stage bellow out.
Mama and I wheel back toward the stage. In the midst of all those around him, clamoring for his attention, the conductor hustles over for a quick moment.
“You were my inspiration tonight,” he leans over and whispers to Mama. “I was nervous when I first saw your earlier, but seeing you reminded me why I do this.”
Her eyes twinkle, and a smile stretches across her entire face as he turns under the lights and walks away, clasping hands, touching others, touching lives, even after the baton is laid down.