In the mid-’90s, several singers got together and approached Peter Boak about forming an Islandwide singing group dedicated to choral works, and to present several concerts a year. Recent singing opportunities had included only annual Handel’s “Messiah” performances, which left them wanting to do other works.
We began modestly, presenting concerts in the Stone Church, Grace Church, and the Oak Bluffs School.
In May 1996, the newly named Island Community Chorus helped celebrate the new Hebrew Center, and we were on our way to becoming a musical force on the Island.
Soon afterward, we joined the high school Minnesingers in March 1997 in the inaugural concert in the new Performing Arts Center.
Later we were invited to share a concert in Rhode Island with the West Bay Chorale at an invitation from Robert Cleasby, who was their director, as well as the new program director at the Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association. We trundled off by way of the Patriot ferry, in an amazing array of “concert dress,” which was dictated by individual decisions as to what that was, from many points of view. Since then, we have become a bit more disciplined in presenting a professional version of dress.
In July 1997, the Camp Meeting Association invited the chorus to be the first Vineyard choir to open the summer session at the Tabernacle, which tradition continues on Saturday, July 2, as we celebrate 25 years there, as well as the retirement of our beloved director, Peter Boak.
There is much to remember.
On Feb. 15, 1998, all the singers were invited to a planning session in order to become a tax-exempt corporation.
The first concert presented by the newly organized Island Community Chorus was held in November 1998, and featured two “Glorias,” by Vivaldi and Poulenc. Ninety-two singers, accompanied by Peter Hutchings, Dawn Aberg, and the Vineyard Sinfonietta, presented the concert in the new Performing Arts Center. Boston soprano Pamela Wolfe was guest soloist, first of many invited singers and musicians over the years.
Challenging works have included “Requiems” by Gabriel Fauré, Johannes Brahms, and John Rutter, a full Bach Cantata, Haydn’s “Missa Solemnis,” Mozart’s “Solemn Vespers,” as well as works by Daniel Pinkham and Benjamin Britten. Along with these, we have sung light and serious opera pieces, Gilbert and Sullivan operetta works, Broadway show tunes, and a wide range of popular choral works.
“The Music Man” was performed in the concert version, as opposed to the entire play. In costume, of course, as was the Gilbert and Sullivan program.
Also featured over the years have been compositions by local poets and composers, including Russell Hoxsie and Philip Dietterich, Brian Hughes, and Dorian Lopes, who also does special arrangements for the chorus.
In 2002, the chorus established the Peter Boak Music Award to further support high school students planning careers in music. Jonas Budris was the first student chosen by a committee of professional musicians and other Islanders. He has since gone on to perform with esteemed groups including Skylark and the Handel and Haydn Society.
Boak presented this year’s scholarship to Benedict Yancy, who was among the Tisbury School’s second graders when Peter retired as the music teacher there. Ben’s most recent role was Jean Valjean in the high school production of “Les Misérables.”
The chorus was invited to participate in the 125th anniversary of the historic Tabernacle, with Mike Wallace as narrator.
Several special concerts have been presented free of charge, in thanks for the dedicated support of our Island audiences. The 10th anniversary concert in 2005 featured a professional brass ensemble as accompanists.
Soloists from the Boston area and as far away as New Jersey, guest musicians as well as local groups including the Sinfonietta, Minnesingers, West Bay Chorale, Cape Cod Ballet, Children’s Chorus, the Brown Brothers, and Island Theater Workshop have been included over the years.
Peter Boak recalls one memorable occasion when the chorus was invited to be part of an outdoor concert on Pennywise Path in Edgartown, along with students and dancers. In the midst of the event, the automatic lawn sprinklers went off, rather dramatically. Sioux Eagle remembers wondering how many dancers might slip on the wet grass; the audience apparently thought it was a planned effect!
One July concert was performed in Union Chapel, with the added challenge of Vineyard July weather.
Felix Mendelssohn’s “Elijah” was one of the most ambitious works presented. It featured professional soloists and a 24-piece orchestra. The audience of nearly 700 was most appreciative and enthusiastic!
Johannes Brahms’ “Requiem” was particularly special; as the director said, it was “the one piece left that I had dreamed of doing.”
Garrett Brown has been our accompanist for most of the recent past. He has truly provided huge support as a gifted mainstay at rehearsals and performances.
More recently, we were honored to present a premiere performance of Thomas Lavoy’s singular work celebrating the life and spirit of our own Nancy Luce. “In Heaven Hereafter” was inspired by a framed print by local poet and artist Dan Waters, which Lavoy found intriguing enough to come to the Island to meet Dan and get background for the cantata. The chorus most recently performed Lavoy’s “Toward the Dawn,” commissioned to help celebrate this 25th anniversary year.
The composer has twice been able to come to the Island to help celebrate these works and enjoy the appreciation of the singers and their audiences.
Over the years, many of the singers have served tirelessly as members of the board, managing the logistics of an ever-growing group. Ad sales, planned receptions, and many other arrangements have been carried off diligently by singers who had many other useful skills.
The COVID pandemic has presented yet another challenge, which brought cancellations of several planned concerts. As the epidemic began to wane, necessary precautions were taken so the singing could begin again, and safely.
There will be no charge for this year’s July concert, though freewill offerings will be gratefully accepted as we continue to celebrate our joy in singing!
And in special tribute to Peter R. Boak, our founding director, there will be a gathering the following day at Sailing Camp Park, where singers and audience members may honor Peter’s long and dedicated time as our director. At his last meeting with the chorus board, Peter was formally thanked by board chair Pamela Butterick. “There are no adequate words to say thank you enough,” Pamela said. “You have blessed us for 25 years with the most elegant singing experience that anyone ever could have imagined.”
For a chorus whose members are not required to audition, some of whom do not read music, its achievements have been astounding.
Peter’s retirement, though well-deserved, will be bittersweet. He brought so much talent, skill, and patience to the education and challenges of a volunteer community singing group. It will be difficult to fill his shoes, much less his famous fancy socks!
Mary-Jane Miner is a longtime member of the Island Community Chorus.
The Tabernacle concert will be presented on Saturday, July 2, at 8 pm. The reception at the Sailing Camp Park will be held on Sunday, July 3, from 3 to 5 pm. The public is invited to share in this celebration of Peter Boak’s 25-plus years of directing Island Community Chorus. Special thanks go to Lorraine St. Pierre, a charter member of the chorus, for years of dedicated archiving of posters, programs, news releases, and other memorabilia for the group.