Music : Community chorus: Mindful sounds
When the Island Community Chorus performs its holiday concerts this weekend at the Old Whaling Church in Edgartown, director Peter Boak hopes the most attentive listeners of all will be those on the stage.
In rehearsal and in performance, for the director and for the choir, Mr. Boak says, "It's so important to be hearing not what you want to hear, but what really is coming at you."
If Mr. Boak has a new mantra after the intensive seminar in choral directing he attended in Scotland this summer, it might be, "Listen, listen, listen."
Photos by Nis Kildegaard
Frequently in the rehearsals - the chorus gathers every Monday night for what members like to call the shortest two hours in the week - he has stepped down from the podium and wandered among the chorus, his usually animated face a mask of concentration. Sometimes, he's asked us to close our eyes and sing a passage from memory, without any visual distractions.
It can be unnerving, but Mr. Boak is reminding us by example, that in making music, listening to your sound and to the sounds around you is half the battle.
The chorus, which gives an award to a high school graduate each year from the Peter R. Boak Scholarship Fund, this summer gave a gift to its director, sending Mr. Boak to the University of Stirling, Scotland, for a choral directing program led by Doreen Rao. Her organization, Choral Music Experience, has specialized for more than two decades in work with young choirs and their conductors.
Says Mr. Boak, "I'd been starting to feel empty in terms of guidance in my choral conducting." The seminar was everything he'd hoped it would be: "When I got back, I couldn't wait for community chorus to start again. I wanted to be trying all this stuff, to see if it really works. And it does, it does work."
The University of Stirling lies in beautiful country, the foothills of the Scottish highlands, but Mr. Boak says his week at the seminar didn't include much time for sightseeing.
"We worked 14-hour days. We'd start every day with early-morning choral meditation - breathing exercises - then we'd go into score analysis, where we'd take a piece of music and analyze the hell out of it. Then we had individual conducting classes, working on improving our technique. Then we'd go into a rehearsal where Ms. Rao would conduct and we'd just observe her, watch her working with a chorus and see what she did, what sort of remedies she'd come up with - what needed to be fixed and how she fixed it. In the evening, we went on the spot and had to get up in front of the chorus and conduct our prepared pieces."
Mr. Boak says Ms. Rao worked with him on the finer points of his conducting technique - things like keeping the beat with his hands a bit lower, "so your conducting is down by your diaphragm where you want the choir to breathe from." This makes a difference, he says, "because your choir will mimic you."
Mr. Boak and Ms. Rao also worked on the different gestural approaches involved in conducting an emotionally dramatic piece from the Romantic tradition and a cooler, more restrained piece from the Baroque. But even with all the picking apart of his conducting technique, Mr. Boak says he felt very much affirmed.
"Even with the weakest and most inexperienced conductor," he says, "Dr. Rao always finds something really good to say before she goes after the weaknesses. After I finished conducting the second night, she started talking to me about strengths she saw in me that she wished she had.
"She said, 'You have this inner peace about you, and I wish I had that.' She felt that I exhibited total control and was at ease with myself, and that the way the choir sang for me and responded was because they sensed that."
Whenever Peter Boak steps to the podium, whether it's in rehearsals at the high school or in performances this Saturday and Sunday at the Whaling Church, both the chorus and its audiences can sense that he's in his comfort zone, precisely where he wants to be. "The wonderful thing about a live performance," he says, "is that it's not like putting on your CD of a piece of music, and it's always going to sound the same. Every performance is different. You're living in the moment, and that's what makes it so exhilarating."
The Island Community Chorus, 7:30 pm, Saturday, Dec. 6, and 3 pm, Sunday, Dec. 7. Music from Baroque to Broadway, including a Bach cantata accompanied by a string ensemble. Suggested $15 donation at the door. Reception with refreshments after both concerts.
Nis Kildegaard, a regular contributor to The Martha's Vineyard Times, sings in the chorus and serves on the organization's board.