Beethoven has friends in the Island Community Chorus

Director Peter Boak was hard at work during a rehearsal Monday night. — Photo by Nis Kildegaard

“Beethoven and Friends” is the title Peter Boak, director of the Island Community Chorus, has chosen for this weekend’s spring concerts at the Performing Arts Center of the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School.

Actually, “Luigi Cherubini and Friends” might be a more truthful title, Mr. Boak admits. His original thought for this program was to present Cherubini’s entire Requiem in C minor (1816), which he eventually decided was too much for the Chorus to take on. “But in doing research on Cherubini and his Requiem,” he says, “I came across a quotation from Beethoven, who said that if he were going to write a requiem mass, he would model it after Cherubini’s, not after Mozart’s.

“I started looking at this relationship between Beethoven and Cherubini, and this whole concert program grew out of that. As I started researching who else was composing and well known at the time, this program started to pull together.”

This weekend’s concerts, Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon, will feature the dramatic centerpiece of Cherubini’s Requiem, the “Dies Irae” (Day of Wrath). Based on a 13th-century Latin text, it’s a relentless, emotionally overpowering vision of final judgment that promises to knock you back in your seat.

Wrapped around the Cherubini are an array of choral masterpieces from the heart of the classical repertoire, including Joseph Haydn’s “The Heavens Are Telling,” Franz Schubert’s sublime 1828 setting of the “Tantum ergo” in E-flat major, and two movements from Johann Hummel’s First Mass in B-flat, the “Gloria” and the “Qui tollis” with its fugue of cascading “Amens” that goes on for nine glorious pages.

The concert program concludes with the Hallelujah Chorus. No, not Handel’s, the one you’re thinking of, but Beethoven’s own version from an oratorio he composed in 1802. Mr. Boak is looking forward to presenting this piece, which the Chorus has never performed before. “It’s an exquisite piece of music,” he says, “and not that well known. I really think it’s equally as impressive as Handel’s Hallelujah.”

Having organized this concert program, Mr. Boak realized early in the Chorus’s 12-week rehearsal schedule that he was asking a great deal from both his singers and from the organization’s accompanist, Garrett Brown. “Every piece we’re performing this weekend was originally composed for orchestra,” he says. “Garrett is basically playing an orchestral part with two hands.”

Wanting to fill out the program without overwhelming his choir or accompanist, Mr. Boak reached out to a musical friend, pianist Lisa Weiss, the Todd Distinguished Professor of Music at Goucher College. Ms. Weiss has agreed to perform with the Chorus this weekend, presenting an interlude of music composed by Schubert.

“Lisa is an exquisite performer,” Mr. Boak says. “The Schubert is absolutely appropriate for our concert. And she’ll be giving Garrett and the Chorus time for a breather. I think it’s going to be appreciated by everyone involved.”

The Island Community Chorus, which gives three concerts each year, traditionally fields its smallest group of singers for the spring concert, because this is the season when singers take vacations and can’t make all the rehearsals. This weekend, about 100 voices will be taking to the stage.

“Traditionally,” Mr. Boak says, “this spring concert has also become the time when we do the most demanding music. It was spring when we did Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms. It was spring when we did Orff’s Carmina Burana. For our December concerts, we’re thinking of music that’s based around the holiday festivities, and our July performances at the Tabernacle tend to be more of a pops concert. So the spring is the time when we sink our teeth into the most substantial choral music. I’ve been loving it.”

This spring’s program is dedicated to John Ebbs, for six years the first elected president of the Island Community Chorus, who died March 16 at age 85.

“It was John,” Mr. Boak recalls, “who had the vision to see that if the Chorus was really going to develop into a substantial and viable body, it needed to have some organization. Together, he and Harry Peterson created our bylaws and undertook to get us our 501-c-3 status.

“He was such a quiet, unassuming guy, but when you talk about still waters running deep, that was John. He saw what had to be done, and he got it done.”

Spring concert of the Island Community Chorus: 7:30 pm on Saturday, March 31, and 3 pm on Sunday, April 1, at the Performing Arts Center. Suggested donation at the door is $15.

Nis Kildegaard is a longtime member of the Island Community Chorus and a frequent contributor to The Times.