The Island Community Chorus turns 20

And they’re partying like it’s 1868 — with a special presentation of the Brahms Requiem.

Community Chorus conductor Peter Boak guides the hundred-voice chorus through a rehearsal of Brahms' "German Requiem." —Photo by Sam Moore

This weekend, the Island Community Chorus will celebrate its 20th anniversary by giving a special gift to the Island: Brahms’ “German Requiem” performed with a 100-voice chorus and 31-piece orchestra. And as always, the concert will be free to the public.

There is a long legacy of choral groups on the Island, and traditionally the centerpiece of their season was a performance of Handel’s “Messiah” every Christmas holiday. Then in 1996, several singers approached Peter Boak, who had recently moved to the Vineyard from New Jersey, and asked him if he would work with them and perhaps help them broaden their repertoire. Mr. Boak had a deep musical background. Before arriving on the Island, he served as minister of music for the 1,200-member congregation of Central Presbyterian Church in Summit, N.J.

Mr. Boak gladly accepted the challenge, and soon thereafter, in May 1996, an invitation came from the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center to perform at the dedication of its new synagogue. This would be the group’s first public performance, almost exactly 20 years ago, but at the time, Mr. Boak had no idea that the newly named Island Community Chorus would go on to become an Island cultural treasure.

In the past, the chorus has presented such challenging works as the Requiems of Gilbert Fauré and John Rutter, a full Bach cantata, Haydn’s “Missa Solemnis,” and works by Benjamin Britten and Daniel Pinkham. In April 2008, they performed Felix Mendelssohn’s great oratorio “Elijah” with soloists and a 24-piece orchestra. But “Elijah” was just a warm-up for the Requiem.

Between 1865 and 1868, Johannes Brahms composed the Requiem as a large-scale work for chorus, orchestra, and soprano and baritone soloists. It’s Brahms’ longest composition, containing seven movements. Mr. Boak describes it as “one of the jewels in the crown of choral repertory.”

“The Requiem is 96 pages of music, and it takes over an hour to perform,” said Nis Kildegaard, who is on the board of the chorus and has been a member for more than 10 years. “Between rehearsing and performing, we’ll do 10 or 12 hours of intense singing over the weekend. It’s not only artistically challenging — it’s physically demanding.”

Bill McConnell, president of the chorus, said, “It’s an amazing piece. It’s not so religious as some Requiems; it doesn’t have an overtly Christian slant. It’s very uplifting but it is difficult, especially for the tenors and sopranos. There are a lot of high notes.”

The only consolation is that at least the Requiem will be performed in English, not in the original German. “That would have been a reach too far,” Mr. Kildegaard said.

The chorus first learned about Mr. Boak’s intentions for the spring concert in January. “Peter told us he wanted to undertake Brahm’s Requiem — all seven movements,” Mr. Kildegaard said. “And of course our first reaction was, ‘He’s crazy, we can’t do that!’” And as if that weren’t enough, Mr. Boak raised the stakes even higher.

“Next he told us that we’d need to raise $20,000 to help pay for the expenses of bringing in a 31-piece orchestra,” Mr. Kildegaard said. The chorus receives many generous grants, but they don’t want to rely entirely on benefactors.

Undeterred, they raised the money in a little over a week. Moreover, they arranged lodging for the 31 orchestra members who would be coming to accompany them.

The chorus has a history of going above and beyond expectations. Even though they take on some of the most challenging choral works in the canon, at the end of the day they’re a group of amateurs, albeit highly motivated amateurs. In fact, you don’t even have to be able to read music to be in the chorus. There are no auditions; everyone who wants to join is welcome. Which raises the question, Why are they so good?

“We have a range of talent,” Mr. Kildegaard said. “It’s each according to his or her own abilities. Some might be good at reading and juxtaposing rhythms but might have a mediocre voice — we put them next to someone with a beautiful sweet voice but who may have no formal musical training. It’s a pretty dedicated bunch; everyone works very hard at this.”

Mr. Boak believes that opening up the doors to all who are interested has worked out well for the chorus over the years: “Most people know their abilities; only two people in 20 years have been a problem. We work with everyone to help them improve themselves.”

And members spend a lot of their own time working to improve themselves, as well. For instance, they turn to online resources like to help learn complicated scores like the Requiem. “Cyberbass has some of the great choral literature in digital form,” Mr. Kildegaard said. “You can go to the Requiem, for instance, and go to your part in a particular place and replay it over and over again. Many of our members spend hours doing this.”

But nothing is more important than having a good teacher. Mr. Kildegaard likes to refer to the book “The Art of Possibility” by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander. The book makes the point that the only one in the symphony who makes not a sound is the conductor. While that may be true, it doesn’t apply to Conductor Boak during rehearsal.

“Peter has plenty to say in rehearsals, but always in a positive and instructive way,” said Mr. Kildegaard. “He never raises his voice. He understands that people come to rehearsals because they want to, and if he yells at them, they’re not going to want to come. For me personally, I feel like I’ve been getting free voice lessons for over 10 years.”

In many cases, chorus members can also learn from one another — especially from someone like Molly Conole, a chorus member and the featured sopranist in the Requiem. Ms. Conole came to the chorus touting a solid musical résumé, including performances in New York and at Disney World.

“We were rehearsing a part where there was a dialogue between Molly and the chorus,” Mr. Boak said, “and the first time she got up in front of everyone for her solo, she transfixed the rest of the chorus and they forgot to come in. Someone that good can be a little intimidating.”

If Mr. Boak is the captain whose vision and steady hand keeps the chorus on course, the chorus’ accompanist, Garrett Brown, is the chief mate. “Garrett is just amazing,” Mr. Kildegaard said. “He has the ability to quickly go to any part of the score, and he seems to be inexhaustible. I don’t know what we’d do without him.”

“The only problem,” Mr. Kildegaard added with a smile, “is that Garrett has perfect pitch. If the sopranos are off a demi-quaver, it’s like nails on a blackboard for him. And I can assure you, there are times in rehearsals when we’re off by more than a demi-quaver.”

On Friday, the day before the first performance, the 31 members of the orchestra, most of whom are coming from Boston and New York, and the baritone soloist, Michael Prichard, will arrive on the Island, and the chorus will have its first full rehearsal. There may even be that starstruck moment, like when Ms. Conole first soloed and the group froze. After all, there’s nothing that prepares one for singing with a 31-piece orchestra when you’re used to singing with a piano, but that moment will be short-lived. The Island Community Chorus may be amateurs, but after 20 years, they’re old pros.

The Island Community Chorus will perform Brahms’ “German Requiem” at the Martha’s Vineyard High School Performing Arts Center at 7:30 pm on Saturday, April 2, and at 3 pm on Sunday, April 3. There will be an introductory talk by musicologist Laura Stanfield Prichard 20 minutes before each performance. The concerts are free and open to the public.