It’s been a bumpy semester of rehearsals for the Island Community Chorus: Three times director Peter Boak had to cancel a Monday practice because of winter storms. Gamely, the singers attended two make-up Saturday rehearsals in March, and this week, Mr. Boak declares himself confident that his chorus of more than 90 voices is ready to perform at the group’s spring concerts this weekend.
“We’ve had our challenges this year,” Mr. Boak admits. “But because this music is so accessible, we’ve been able to get over the notes quickly so we could spend most of the semester concentrating on making music, going after the nuances.”
The choir’s program for this Saturday and Sunday features four works by the contemporary Norwegian-American choral composer Ola Gjeilo — music that has never been performed by the chorus before. Garrett Brown, the choir’s longtime accompanist, first brought Mr. Gjeilo’s work to the director’s attention.
“I’m always skeptical at first when I hear about a contemporary composer,” says Mr. Boak. “I’m just afraid they’re going to write all this modern stuff that’s dissonant and strange. But to find a contemporary composer writing not only beautiful music, but also harmonious and accessible — this isn’t the sort of music where you spend the first weeks of rehearsals just getting your choristers to like it. It’s appealing music from the start, so that people want to learn it and work with it.”
Mr. Gjeilo’s music draws on his childhood recollections of the Norwegian landscape — one of the most haunting pieces is “Northern Lights,” which evokes what the composer calls “the terrible, powerful beauty” of the aurora borealis. Another is “Across the Vast, Eternal Sky,” a piece written collaboratively with the poet Charles A. Silvestri, its musical theme a rising line that echoes the ascendance of the morning sun.
Mr. Gjeilo is a composer who clearly loves the sound of human voices, and exploring their interplay with instrumental music. In addition to the piano accompaniment of Garrett Brown, this weekend’s concerts will feature saxophone improvisation by Steve Tully, and a string quartet which includes Island musicians Stephen and Susan McGhee.
Completing the concert program are works by Morten Lauridsen, Edvard Grieg, and Antonin Dvorak (the only non-Scandinavian in the lineup). Says Mr. Boak: “Everyone knows Dvorak’s ‘Going Home,’ but all of this music is so accessible that even if people haven’t heard it before, they’ll feel as if they know it.”
Three weeks ago, when the director announced that this spring concert will be performed not in the Performing Arts Center as originally planned, but in the Old Whaling Church, the members of the Island Chorus responded with applause. Peter Boak wasn’t surprised.
“People just love that space. They like the sound of the space, and the physical beauty of it. And because the choir is smaller this term, as it generally is in the spring semester, I think we would have been swallowed up in the Performing Arts Center.”
Swallowed up not only physically, but also sonically: The acoustics in the PAC are not ideal. “Unfortunately,” says Mr. Boak, “we’re living in a time when the solution to everything is just to amplify it. The feeling is that if you get the mikes in the right place, you can fix anything. But there are those of us whose ears like acoustic sound — natural, unaltered sound.” And for that natural acoustic sound, he agrees, the Old Whaling Church is the gold standard on Martha’s Vineyard.
There’s an arc to a single musical phrase, and an arc to a semester of choral rehearsal — even a semester as punctuated by snowstorms as this one has been. And as every semester of rehearsal nears its end, if everyone works hard enough, there come those goosebump moments when the emotional force of great choral music first begins to emerge. It’s not about merely getting the notes right — that happens earlier on. It’s about allowing a crescendo to build as it should, and then falling back to a pianissimo that’s quiet, but every bit as intense. It’s about balancing voices to each other, and in the last weeks it’s about singing the whole program straight through as the director envisioned it, then waking in the morning with a favorite concert melody playing in the mind’s ear, and finally it’s the thrill of taking to the concert stage and sharing the fruits of three months’ work with your audience in the Island’s finest musical space.
The spring concerts of the Island Community Chorus will be presented at 7:30 pm Saturday, April 11, and at 3 pm on Sunday, April 12, at the Old Whaling Church in Edgartown. Admission is a suggested donation of $15 at the door.
Nis Kildegaard is an occasional writer for the Times and a singer in the chorus since 2005.