Brief Encounters: Peter Boak

By CK Wolfson - November 29, 2007

Calm seems to hover like a mist throughout Peter Boak's large, quiet Oak Bluffs home, affecting even Maisie, his huge fawn-colored Great Dane who slowly arranges herself across the towel-covered living room couch.

The Victorian house, built on family property, holds clues to the self-contained, somewhat formal, always pleasantly mannered man who serves as the Tisbury School music teacher, the musical director at Edgartown's Federated Church, and the director of the Island Community Chorus. His priorities seem revealed in the uncluttered setting, an expanse of open space with a minimum of furnishings that include family antiques (his grandmother's dining room set and 1934 refrigerator), family portraits, framed needlepoint designed and stitched by his father, a Japanese scroll-like painting made by his uncle. There is an on-loan grand piano, an old small organ from Seamen's Bethel, a section of organ wooden pipes mounted on the wall, and on the floor by the kitchen counter, Maisie's tub-sized dishes.

Peter Boak
At home, it's harmony all around. Photo by CK Wolfson. Click photo for larger version.

Until Mr. Boak moved to the Vineyard in January 1994, the 57-year-old native of Basking Ridge, N.J., a small town of 45 minutes from Manhattan, spent all of his summers at his family's Vineyard compound. And he's content. He smiles, and softly says, "I've got my dog, I have my house, and I've got my life on Martha's Vineyard."

It is a full life, one he assembled gradually, starting from his first job in the office at Nathan Mayhew Seminars, to working as loan operations manager at Edgartown Bank, and as music director at Grace Church. But it is Mr. Boak's leadership of the Island Community Chorus that has brought him Island-wide recognition. He is responsible for the success of the chorus, an everybody-welcome, come-and-sing group of about 120 dedicated members whose performances pack the Island halls. The chorus existed in smaller form decades before he came, he asserts matter-of-factly, "It was there; it just needed to be built upon."

And so it was. From approximately 40 members, the chorus under Mr. Boak's direction began to sprout members. To understand what it is that keeps attracting the numbers, one would simply have to observe Mr. Boak's serious and respectful approach to the music, the challenging selections that he chooses, and the civility with which the collection of singers is embraced. So the grocer, the teacher, the jeweler, the retired businessman, the writer, fisherman, and lawyer stand shoulder to shoulder raising their voices together accompanied by Mr. Boak's friend since his college days, Garrett Brown, ("We read each other's minds"). They find their harmonious way through composers such as Gershwin, Vivaldi, and Handel.

Peter Boak
Mr. Boak waves his magic wand and voices rise in song. Photo by Ralph Stewart. Click photo for larger version.

"There are 120 people in the chorus and they're probably all there for 120 different reasons," Mr. Boak says. "So it can't just be what I want. I can go in there with a plan of what I want to accomplish and sometimes we don't get to half of it. Other times they are more ready than what I might have anticipated. No two weeks are ever the same." He adds that it's like that at school also. "You have your lesson plans that you think are great, but there are some days when it just goes down the toilet."

"I do tend to be a perfectionist," Mr. Boak admits. I tend to learn music quickly, so I've had to learn to pace myself to people who don't learn as quickly. I have learned patience through this. If it's someone who's not experienced, they have to be comfortable with a couple of weeks of frustration because we move pretty quickly - 11 or 12 weeks to prepare a piece of music is not a lot of time. But first you have to enjoy the experience. Nobody's going to give up two hours a week for rehearsals if they don't enjoy this, if it's not worth their while to be there.

Maisie rearranges herself on the couch after offering a breathy gesture of a bark as a car makes its way along the dirt road in front of the house, and Mr. Boak smiles and asks her if she's all right, then continues: "I have the musical skills, but the management of it all was really by trial and error, and finding people who were as passionate about it as I was, and realizing that one person couldn't do it all. That's where the whole thing of getting incorporated and finding a board came from - so that the responsibility could be shared."

Peter Boak
A smiling Mr. Boak offers introductions to the selections before the concert begins. Photo by Ralph Stewart. Click photo for larger version.

And there were other lessons to be learned. "I've learned to believe in myself a little bit more," Mr. Boak confesses. "I think people see me as somebody who's pretty self-assured and confident in what I'm doing, but that's not always true. Sometimes I have to put that mask on. So I've learned to become more self-assured in talking to a large group of people. I've also learned that I need time for myself," he says. He smiles and explains that he's learned to say no, to resist taking on more responsibilities.

When the conversation turns to the December holiday concert, he says, "It's a really nice mix." Opening a spiral notebook filled with musical scores, he describes the program that includes excerpts from Handel's "Messiah," contemporary composer John Rutter's song cycle, "When Cycles Hang," "Chanukah Candle Blessings," "Nativity Carole," and "a fun arrangement of "Jingle Bells," and "Night of Silence."

Mr. Boak, who insists he was a mischievous child, was eight years old when he began taking piano lessons - which he refers to as "a turning point in my life." His first job as a teenager was as a church organist. He went on to earn a bachelor's degree in music education from Westminster Choir College in Princeton, N.J.; a master's degree in sacred music from Southern Methodist University, in Dallas, Texas; and secured a job as Minister of Music for the 1,200-member congregation of Central Presbyterian Church in Summit, N.J.

Directing the chorus provides Mr. Boak with insight into the Vineyard community, giving him, he admits, a form of extended family. "I don't think I would be happy here if I were dormant or inactive. I love (he presses on the word) feeling as if I'm doing something to help the Island." He smiles. "It all feels so natural."

The Island Community Chorus concerts are Saturday, Dec. 1, 7:30 pm, and Sunday, Dec. 2, 3 pm. Old Whaling Church, Main St., Edgartown. Tickets are a suggested donation of $15.