Robert C. Cleasby, director of programs for the Martha’s Vineyard Camp-Meeting Association, retrieved his trademark crimson trousers from the cleaners last week and made the annual trip from his Rhode Island home to Oak Bluffs. Here, on Saturday night, July 3, he’ll open the Association’s 175th summer season by introducing one of his favorite groups to perform in the historic Tabernacle: the Island Community Chorus.
“I think this is great,” Mr. Cleasby says. “I’m a choral director. And the Tabernacle was built for singing. How could it be any better?”
The relationship between the Chorus and the Camp-Meeting Association was cemented more than a decade ago, when Mr. Cleasby was artistic director of the West Bay Chorale in Warwick, R.I. “I invited the Chorus to come to Providence one May to join us in our spring concert,” he recalls, “and then the Chorus reciprocated and asked us to join them in their performance at the Tabernacle.”
Ever since, Mr. Cleasby has been a great fan of the Chorus and its artistic director, Peter Boak. “At one point,” he says, “I even tried to pursue the idea of repeating the July concert in August, but that never worked out. I’m just sorry the August people don’t get to hear the Chorus, too.”
At no other moment in the Vineyard year do the year-round and summer communities come together under such distinctly festive circumstances. Says Mr. Cleasby: “This really is the only chance for our summer people to hear the fine chorus that is singing here on the Island year-round.”
For the members of the Island Community Chorus, says Mr. Boak, the affection for this summer tradition runs strong. “Our singers love this concert,” he says. “The Whaling Church, where we sing in the winter and spring, is a Vineyard landmark, too. But somehow the Tabernacle is associated more with summer on the Island, and it has this whole rich history of the Community sings.”
Mr. Boak begins every March, before the spring concert, to select choral music for the Tabernacle performance. The mood he’s looking for is almost that of a Boston Pops concert — “a lighter concert, something that goes hand-in-hand with the feelings we all have at the beginning of summertime on the Island.”
For material this year, Mr. Boak has reached into the Island Chorus archives to revive a medley of songs from “Les Miserables,” the popular musical. “I thought it was time to pull it out again and dust it off,” he says, noting that it’s been five or six years since the Chorus has sung this music
Rollicking gospel tunes are on the program, and a hauntingly lovely setting of a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, sung in French. But Mr. Boak is most excited about presenting a piece he recently discovered, and which the Chorus has never undertaken before: a Dave Brubeck arrangement of the powerful Langston Hughes poem, “I Dream a World.”
There’s a bit of a local connection here, says Mr. Boak. “Langston Hughes was associated with the Harlem Renaissance, and of course the author Dorothy West was an important figure in that movement, and she lived out her life in Oak Bluffs.”
At Saturday’s concert a free-will offering will be gathered, with the proceeds shared by the Island Community Chorus and the Camp-Meeting Association. The Chorus puts the money it gathers after expenses into its Peter Boak Scholarship Fund. This year’s recipient, Hannah Marlin of Vineyard Haven, a 2010 graduate of Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, will be singing a piece at the Tabernacle event.
The Camp-Meeting Association puts the revenue into its program fund, which Mr. Cleasby describes as “our risk capital for the next year. This enables us to bring talent to the Tabernacle that we think will work well. But of course, you never know.”
Mr. Cleasby, who spent his career as an educator, sees the Island Community Chorus as living proof of how important art and music education are in our schools today. “I used to have friendly arguments with the athletics people,” he says, “because at my school, athletics was king. I’d say to them, what are your people going to be doing when they’re 45? Not playing football — they’re going to be sitting in a chair with a can of beer, watching football. My people — they’re just getting warmed up.”
Island Community Chorus, at the Tabernacle on the Campground in Oak Bluffs, 8 p.m., Saturday, July 3. No admission charge; a free-will offering will be taken.
Nis Kildegaard is a regular columnist of the Martha’s Vineyard Times. He sings in the Island Community Chorus and serves on its board.