Our community sings

Joyce Stiles-Tucker: Photo by Nis Kildegaard
Joyce Stiles-Tucker.

- March 30, 2006

Every Monday night since Jan. 16, more than 120 Vineyard singers have been bundling up and convening at Martha's Vineyard Regional High School at 7 pm for two intense hours of rehearsal for the April 1 and 2 concerts of the Island Community Chorus.

"Sometimes on a cold, cold night, you'll say, 'Oh, I really don't feel like going to rehearsal tonight' - but you push yourself," says Lorraine St. Pierre of Edgartown, a soprano in the chorus. "And when you're there, you're alive."

Every Monday night, week in and week out, they gather. As a matter of fact, Ms. St. Pierre is just one of several dozen chorus members who have been making that weekly trip to rehearsal ever since the early winter of 1996. Scattered among the newcomers and the not-so-newcomers in the rows of singers today are the veterans who bring a special perspective to this 10th anniversary year: They've been with the Island Community Chorus from the very beginning.

Sioux Eagle: Photo by Nis Kildegaard
Sioux Eagle.

Or, to put it in the more colorful words of ex-Marine and bass singer Glenn Carpenter, "We've got people who've been with this choir since Christ was a corporal."

Back in the early 1990s, the tradition of choral singing on Martha's Vineyard was in the doldrums. The legendary choral director Harold Heeremans was gone. David F. Hewlett, the great organist and conductor, had folded his creation, the Abendmusik Choir, and retired. But in his years with Abendmusik, he had fostered a hunger for challenging music among Island singers.

"I think everyone who sang with David Hewlett back in the 1980s and early 1990s gives him tremendous credit for getting them back into serious music," says Mr. Carpenter. "I know I do."

Having tasted such heady works as the Mozart and Brahms Requiems, Island singers weren't entirely satisfied with dusting off Handel's Messiah a couple of times a year. They turned to a director newly settled on the Island, Peter R. Boak, with the idea of forming a chorus to perform other great vocal music. He agreed, and the first concert of the Island Community Chorus was given to dedicate the new Martha's Vineyard Hebrew Center in May of 1996.

Phil Fleischmann: Photo by Nis Kildegaard
Phil Fleischmann.

It was the beginning of a love story.

The chorus was on hand again with music to open the new Performing Arts Center in March of 1997. Formal nonprofit incorporation came in 1998; that year also saw the launch of a favorite Island tradition, the chorus's annual summer concert at the Tabernacle in Oak Bluffs.

Arts organizations have a way of ebbing and flowing, but the story of the Island Community Chorus reads like a single, 10-year crescendo. The choir's latest feat was a pair of concerts in December that featured a live brass ensemble from Boston and filled the Old Whaling Church to overflowing.

Says Mr. Carpenter, "A lot of people who came to those free concerts back in December have said to me, 'Jeez! I had no idea there was a group this good around here. I'm never going to miss a performance from now on.'"

Barbara Fehl: Photo by Nis Kildegaard
Barbara Fehl.

The accomplishments of this choir - performing great music by such composers as Haydn, Mozart, John Rutter, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Daniel Pinkham and Benjamin Britten - are the more remarkable because it's a community chorus in the truest sense of the word. There are no auditions. The only requirement is faithful attendance at the rehearsals where Mr. Boak takes the choir through the music, phrase by phrase, sometimes note by note, with accompanist L. Garrett Brown beside him at the piano.

The 10-year veterans of the chorus come from many musical backgrounds, but they are in perfect unison on one point: The secret of the choir's success lies in the formidable musical and personal skills of its director.

"You can't find anybody in the Island Community Chorus who's not a tremendous supporter of Peter Boak," says Mr. Carpenter, who has been singing in choirs all his life. "He is the best director I've ever sung with, hands down - in terms of his musical knowledge, his ability to get people to work together, his ability to pick music for the choir. He's a joy to work with. Peter makes the experience for all of us - certainly the camaraderie and the singing are all part of it, but without Peter, it would be a very different experience. You don't want to let him down - he's that sort of guy."

Tony Scheller: Photo by Nis Kildegaard
Tony Scheller.

Tenor Roger Thayer of Oak Bluffs has been with the chorus for all of its 10 years; before moving to the Island, he sang for a quarter-century with the semi-professional Paul Hill Chorale in Washington, D.C., giving concerts at the Kennedy Center.

Says Mr. Thayer, "Sometimes I get a little bored at all of the wood-shedding, as Peter calls it, because I'm used to doing that at home on my own. But I enjoy the people, and I enjoy the performances; a lot of my friends and family come. I really like Peter's musical ability. We're very lucky to have him."

Says Mrs. St. Pierre, "Every week when I go to chorus, I feel like I'm having a singing lesson. Because Peter is so nit-picking; he can correct you, and you don't feel insulted. He wants the score to be perfect, and he gets out of you everything that you've got to give. I really enjoy it. Every time I go, I feel renewed."

Soprano Susan Wilson, another 10-year chorus veteran, says that she and others who have participated in the choir's entire history have been able to watch it evolve and grow as a musical institution.

"In the chorus," she says, "I discovered that even though my musical background was as a flute player, not a voice person, I really love the voice. And as time has gone on, Peter has given each and every one of us a vocal lesson. I've learned how to sing.

"This is an education. There are a lot of amateur choirs out there, but this is beyond that now. This is a performance choir."

The core group of 30 or 40 veterans gives the choir its continuity, and has enabled it to take on greater challenges with the passing years. Says Ms. Wilson, "These people help the newcomers - they no longer have the fear in their eyes when we get handed some of this new music. We can say to them, 'Don't worry. It all comes together. Don't worry.'"

Soprano Martha Mezger, who's been a regular at Monday night rehearsals since that first concert season in 1996, says she, too, has enjoyed watching the chorus evolve. "The chorus has grown in size," she says, "and I think the sound is so much better now. In the early years, we weren't bad, but we didn't sing as a team the way we do now.

"In the beginning, we sounded like a community chorus. Now we sound more like a professional choir. We're digging deeper now to get the sound that Peter wants."

A central dynamic of the Island Community Chorus, says Ms. Wilson, is a current of trust and loyalty that runs back and forth between the director and his singers: "Many of us in the chorus - I'd say the majority - are completely under the thrall of this man whose devotion to us is met by our devotion to him. Peter always challenges us - but it's also Garrett, and it's every individual in the chorus who is willing to work hard at something and present it seriously. We always seem to rise to the occasion."

Alto Lee Fierro, an actress and director known across the Island for a career devoted to the theatre, is another 10-year veteran who will take the stage at the Old Whaling Church this weekend to help celebrate the anniversary of the chorus. "Singing," she says, "is probably the most important part of my life - even more than theatre."

Of Peter Boak, her director and good friend, she says: "You very rarely get a director, teacher, boss, anything, who is as 100 percent positive as Peter. He's also a musician, an artist. I think the combination of his positive personality and his musicianship is something that's very wonderful to be part of."

And in the middle of an interview, Ms. Fierro, never the shy one, bursts into song. "There's a little round," she says, "that goes:

'All things shall perish from under the sky.
Music alone shall live, music alone shall live,
Music alone shall live, never to die.'

"And that's the way I feel about it. That's the way I think it is."

Island Community Chorus concert Saturday, April 1, 7:30 pm and Sunday, April 2, 3 pm at the Old Whaling Church, Main Street, Edgartown. A suggested donation of $15, students are free.

Nis Kildegaard is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Edgartown.