Island Community Chorus takes the stage

Island Community Chorus director, Peter Boak. — Photo by Nis Kildegaard

The Island Community Chorus, 114 voices strong, jump-starts the holiday season with concerts at the Old Whaling Church in Edgartown this Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 1 and 2.

Peter Boak, director, and accompanist Garrett Brown have been working with the chorus since the week after Labor Day in preparation for this weekend’s performances. Every Monday night, Mr. Boak has cajoled and criticized, challenged and cheered the chorus while Mr. Brown faithfully picked up each thread of what sometimes will flower into 12-part harmonies at the Whaling Church.

In these holiday concerts, says Mr. Boak, “We try to present music from a variety of different traditions.” The choir will sing compositions in Latin, German, Hebrew, and English — with all the lyrics helpfully printed in the concert program book.

In what has become a holiday tradition, the chorus will be joined onstage by a number of talented guest musicians. Baritone Michael Prichard of the Boston area is the featured soloist in one of the concert program’s centerpieces, the “Fantasia on Christmas Carols” (1912) by the great British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Jan Hyer accompanies the Fantasia as cellist. Also performing are clarinetist Julie Schilling, violinist Susan McGhee, and percussionist Brian Weiland.

Mr. Boak is looking forward to leading the chorus in one of the Island’s great musical venues: “It’s wonderful that we get to do a concert like this twice,” he says. “Because it’s not like you’re just putting on a record. Sunday afternoon’s concert won’t be a replay of Saturday. That’s the magic of live performance.”

One of the great mysteries of choral music is the way text is transformed and elevated by song. Mr. Boak, a winner of the Island Award for Creative Living, begins planning these concerts by seeking out texts that speak to the spirit of this season. “When I’m looking for a piece of music, I do want to find a good lyricist – a person who has a good handle on words,” he says. “Because if you have a good, solid text to begin with and you add good music to that, you really can’t go wrong.

“When you’re dealing only with the text, you’re dealing with people’s individual beliefs, and they run the gamut. But when you wed it with music, you’re not just using written language to convey a meaning — you’re also using rhythm and harmony and dynamics. It adds a different dimension.”

The chorus has struggled all semester with a challenging piece by the contemporary American composer Morten Lauridsen, his 1997 “Ave Maria,” finally attaining a grasp of its lyrical complexities in just the last few weeks. Mr. Boak came about as close as he ever comes to upbraiding the chorus in a mid-November rehearsal when he implored the singers to get their eyes up out of the sheet music, quoting a sarcastic definition of a good director as “Someone who follows the choir.”

Says Mr. Boak, “Susan Southworth, one of my choir members at the Federated Church, found that definition for me.” Asked what his real definition of a good director might be, Mr. Boak reflects a moment before answering: “I would just say, one who doesn’t let up on a group’s abilities. Who knows what a group can do, and doesn’t let them not do it.”

Double-negatives aside, every singer who has worked with Peter Boak knows how perfectly this expresses his approach to every rehearsal with the Island Community Chorus. His manner is unfailingly patient, but he never lets the chorus get away with anything less than its best.

Mr. Boak acknowledges that some of the singers may have found the “Ave Maria” a frustrating piece of music to learn, but he pointedly recalls a composition by Rodion Shchedrin, “The Sealed Angel,” that was a highlight of another concert several years ago. “The chorus was pulling their hair out over that piece, and the audience just ate it up.”

After eating up this weekend’s concert program, audiences are invited to retire downstairs to the Baylies Room, where a tasty buffet of seasonal snacks prepared by Chorus members will be served.

Island Community Chorus Holiday Concert: 7:30 pm, Saturday, Dec. 1, and 3 pm on Sunday, Dec. 2, at the Old Whaling Church in Edgartown. Suggested donation is $15 at the door.

Mr. Kildegaard is a regular contributor to the Times and a singer in the Chorus.