Island Community Chorus readies for summer concert

The Island Community Chorus rehearses at the Tabernacle June 27 for its July 3 show. — Photo by meg

When the Island Community Chorus opens another season on the Campground with its holiday concert this Sunday, July 3, a rich variety of great American music will be on the program.

“It’s Americana from practically every direction you can think of,” says director Peter Boak. “We have the sea chanteys, which are so appropriate for the Island, and the patriotic, Fourth of July things. We’ve got songs honoring Broadway and the movies, and then we’ve got this wonderful setting of ‘Buffalo Gals,’ which comes from the minstrel and early vaudeville tradition. And we’re singing Aaron Copland, who to me is just the great American composer.”

As an added treat, the Chorus promises to sing an arrangement of the children’s tune, “Skip to My Lou,” unlike anything Tabernacle audiences have heard before.

Mr. Boak says Sunday’s program, which wraps up the Island Chorus’s 15th anniversary year celebration, was pulled together largely by the choir’s longtime accompanist, Garrett Brown.

“Garrett and I always do quite a bit of bouncing program ideas back and forth, but for this concert he really was the organizer more than I was. I think I was so wrapped up our performance of ‘The Music Man’ in April, I forgot that the weeks were speeding along, and it was time to get the next concert program ready. Garrett really took the initiative.”

The Tabernacle concert occupies a unique space in the annual cycle of singing for the Island Community Chorus, which also performs each December and spring. It’s the only program the Chorus sings only once. It’s the only concert the Chorus presents in the season when summer families are on hand to hear what their year-round neighbors have been up to in the winter. And it’s the only performance the Chorus gives in this iconic space at the center of the Campground, a place so rich with musical traditions.

Says Mr. Boak, “The Tabernacle is a favorite spot for so many people, for so many reasons. I remember summers here, growing up, going to Community Sings at the Tabernacle, to the art show and Illumination. Now, to be able to be up there on stage, performing, kind of closes the circle.”

When Mr. Boak began his association with the Chorus 15 years ago, it was in his role as organist at Grace Church in Vineyard Haven, when it was the tradition each December to present a sing-along performance of Handel’s “Messiah.” “I don’t think I ever anticipated that the Chorus would grow to the size it has,” he says. “It’s three times larger now than when we started.”

Describing the challenge of working with more than 100 voices, he says: “I don’t like to use the term crowd control, but that’s what it is — not physical control, but crowd control in terms of vocal control. It’s about trying to understand people’s individual abilities and needs — everybody’s in the Chorus for a different reason — trying to juggle all that to come up with a solid group has been a learning experience for me.”

Anyone who watches Mr. Boak at work with the Island Chorus, which requires no auditions for new members, will come away marveling not only at his teaching skills, but also at his patience. The secret of that patience, he says, is a matter of simple perspective: “I know people have been out working all day. They’re tired when they come to Chorus rehearsal, and they want to feel that they’ve made a positive contribution. I don’t think they’d feel that if they were screamed at. We’re all there to learn music and get better, but the main reason we’re there is for the enjoyment of it.”

In almost every season of rehearsals, there comes a moment when some Chorus members wonder if Mr. Boak has finally selected a concert program too challenging to be ready in time. He insists he doesn’t experience it that way: “I’ve never had any doubts, actually, about whether we’d be able to meet a concert deadline.”

And he shares a story from this year’s Massachusetts Music Educators Conference, when he watched Anton Armstrong, director of the legendary choral program at St. Olaf’s College, in rehearsal with the All-State Choir to prepare the concert that closes the conference.

“They were rehearsing these grueling hours, 8 and 10 hours a day, and between workshops I wandered in to watch, because I always learn new things watching other conductors work. They were working through a piece rather tediously, not making great strides with it, when he stopped and talked to the choir. ‘You know,’ he said, ‘we’ll all be fine if you just remember, you’ve got to listen louder than you sing.’ I thought wow, what a wonderful concept.”

Island Community Chorus at the Tabernacle, Oak Bluffs, 8 pm, Sunday, July 3. A free-will offering will be taken.

Nis Kildegaard, a regular columnist of The Times, sings in the Chorus and serves on its board.