The Island Community Chorus, which will open its 20th-anniversary year with a pair of holiday concerts in Edgartown this weekend, first performed at the opening of the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center in May 1996.
Some 40 singers joined Peter Boak, the choir’s music director, for that event. “Every time we did a concert and began rehearsals for whatever we were going to do next, the choir kept growing,” Mr. Boak says. “It was obvious that we were doing something right. People wanted to sing with us. And we began to realize that this was something serious, and if we were going to do this, we needed to do it right.”
The chorus was incorporated as a nonprofit organization in 1998, and John Ebbs served as its first president.
Garrett Brown, who sang in the choir’s bass section for some of its earliest performances, has been the group’s accompanist since the fall of 2000. As the dynamic duo at the center of two decades of music making, Mr. Brown and Mr. Boak have enjoyed watching the Island Community Chorus grow into a Vineyard cultural institution.
Both men support the founders’ original commitment to making the chorus an open, no-auditions choir. “That’s what makes this most open to the community,” Mr. Boak says. “There are a lot of wonderful choruses that do fine work, but they are limited in terms of who can experience that because they require auditions. I’d rather take people who have enthusiasm and help them become the best they can be.”
Even though Mr. Brown has perfect pitch, which means he experiences the choir’s occasional sour notes like the rest of us experience fingernails dragged across a blackboard, he’s also a firm believer in the no-auditions policy. “That’s why the word ‘community’ is in Island Community Chorus,” Mr. Brown says.
Mr. Brown says that the quality that best suits Mr. Boak for this work, aside from his master’s degree in choral directing and a lifetime of experience, is his seemingly boundless patience. When a section of the choir asks to woodshed a passage a second time, and a third, Mr. Boak is happy to take them there.
Mr. Brown usually seems to know in advance exactly where the director and choir are going next. His anticipation at rehearsals is uncanny. “Peter tells me I know where he’s going before he does,” Mr. Brown says. “Part of that is because that’s my job, and being a choir director myself helps, but another part is that I’ve known Peter since I was 10 years old, and I know how he thinks.”
For veteran singers (many have been choir members for a dozen years or more), the experience of singing with the chorus has been like years of music lessons from Mr. Boak. From his seat at the piano, Mr. Brown says he’s seen those lessons taking hold.
“I can remember when we had to bang out all the parts from the very start before the chorus could start singing through anything, and now people are sight-reading,” Mr. Brown says. “It’s completely different from where it was 15 years ago. And the chorus has gotten closer together as a group. I think the chorus listens better now.”
Both director and accompanist say that leading the Island Community Chorus has become a central life’s work, perhaps even a defining task, for them. “I would say it’s the most important thing I do, for my own gratification and for my own growth,” says Mr. Boak. “This has forced me to continue to improve as a musician and as a director.”
Says Mr. Brown: “It’s important for me to do this, because this is who I am. I’ve always preferred being an accompanist to being a director. It’s what I love the most. I think it’s what I do best. It’s cathartic. I can have a super-crappy day, but when I’m at rehearsal doing music, the rest of the world goes away.”
Thinking back across the years, Mr. Brown offers one more thought: “Another thing I’ve noticed is that this group has developed a following. People I know, and people I don’t know, are asking, ‘When is that concert? I don’t want to miss that, I go every year.’ So the choir has groupies now.”
The Island Community Chorus holiday concert, 7:30 pm on Saturday, Dec. 5, and 3 pm on Sunday, Dec. 6, at the Old Whaling Church in Edgartown. Receptions with seasonal snacks follow both concerts in the Baylies Room downstairs. Suggested donation is $15.