Music : Community Chorus heralds the holidays
This weekend one of the special gifts of the Vineyard holiday season materializes as the voices of the Island Community Chorus will fill the Old Whaling Church in Edgartown. The chorus has been presenting polished and ambitious programs for the holidays for 14 years - each season bringing new surprises in the selection of material. This year, audiences on Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon will be treated to a voyage through the centuries of choral music, with selections ranging from baroque to modern.
Director Peter Boak, who teaches vocal music at Tisbury School, took the helm of the choral group, known then as the Abendmusik Choir, in 1996. Until then, the chorus had staged one yearly performance of Handel's "Messiah." But the group wanted to diversify and perform more than once a year.
Since taking on the job of director, Mr. Boak has seen the chorus almost double in size to its present membership of 154. He has helped expand the material to include many lesser known and challenging pieces.
Chorus members are effusive in their praise of Mr. Boak. They credit him with their impressive performance level and with his knack of choosing interesting material. One of the original chorus members, Mary-Jean Miner, says, "Peter just makes it. He allows us to be the best singers we can possibly be. He doesn't push it he allows it. He's a natural born teacher."
Another of the founding members, Martha Mizger says, "Peter's directing is absolutely fabulous. I think we've grown in our ability to pick up a variety of types of music and different languages, We've gotten braver and Peter's gotten braver with us. I think we've become a more confident choir."
Soloist Glenn Carpenter also comments on Mr. Boak's risk taking: "Sometimes we grouse about the selections, but we always end up liking what he's chosen. He has an uncanny way of picking music that works for this group."
A strict rehearsal schedule is maintained for 12 weeks prior to each of its three yearly concerts. Singers commit to rehearsing for two hours every Monday and they are only allowed to miss four rehearsals. A spring concert is held at the Whaling Church and the traditional July 3 concert takes place in the Tabernacle.
The full membership is not always involved with every performance, and instrumentalists are recruited depending on need. For the holiday concert, a group of about 110 chorus members, along with accompanist Garrett Brown and seven guest musicians, will take the audience through a program that includes a cappella pieces from the Renaissance and by contemporary composers. They include a beautiful baroque version of "The Maginificat" (Song of Mary) by 17th century French composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier, a klezmer piece, and a unique version of "The Twelve Days of Christmas," by Craig Courtney. It is a 12-minute journey through musical history beginning with a Gregorian chant and finishing with a flourish accompanied by John Philip Sousa's rousing "Stars and Stripes Forever."
Mr. Boak explains that the program presents a unique challenge to a conductor. He says, "It's hard to go from style to style quickly... The challenge is to smoothly get from style to style." He notes that a number of the chorus members have performed the piece while singing with other groups and recommended it. The holiday program itself is a bit of a musicological journey with pieces representing many time periods and styles.
Mr. Boak admits he always tries to mix it up and try new things with each show. He chose "The Magnificat," which predates Bach, because they had never done this type of music before. The Hanukah selection, "Dance the Hora" will give the chorus the chance to experiment with a klezmer orchestration. Mr. Boak comments that the piece's authenticity is enhanced by the fact that it is arranged by Joshua Jacobsen, one of the foremost authorities on Jewish choral music.
The chorus members are grateful for the opportunity to stretch the group's boundaries and advance their own skills and knowledge. But first and foremost they appreciate the opportunity to enjoy the music and the camaraderie.
Mr. Carpenter notes that the late author Philip Craig, who was a long-time chorus member, always said that one of the high points of his week was the chorus rehearsal. Mr. Carpenter says, "I think most of us would echo that sentiment. If we didn't do it we would suffer a loss."
Gwyn McAllister is a regular contributor to The Times.