Old North Festival Chorus: last night tonight

The final concert in the 39th year Old North Festival Chorus concerts takes place this evening. Last night’s concert was acclaimed by a packed house.

Festival Chorus

I want to share with you a behind-the-scenes view from a member of the chorus.

It all starts on the last Wednesday in September when we register, collect scores and guides, and start the first rehearsal.

This is a great evening, greeting old friends and welcoming new singers. Discovering what Maria has selected for this year’s program and then – starting to sing!

It sounds simple, but is not. First, most of the music we sing is written for 4 voices: soprano; alto; tenor and bass. And each of those voices at some point will split into 1st (higher range) and 2nd (lower range).

So the first task is to identify the line in the score for your voice. Many of us use a colored marker to highlight our voice part.

Now we know what to sing we have to know how. Emphasize the downbeat, release on the upbeat, don’t sound the s until the very last moment, sing piano or forte. Take a breath here; don’t take a breath there; stagger breathing; look up. LOOK UP. LOOK UP.

Again, many of us make notations in the score. We write notes to ourselves. Remember that excelsis is pronounced ek-cel in the Bach and egg-shell in the Huron Carol. Make a note.

We get mps versions of our parts; we listen to our part on cyberbass; we listen to CDs and try to sing our part to the CD so that we can hear the overall sound.

Wednesday rehearsals soon become Wednesdays and Saturdays and then, after Thanksgiving, the pace picks up. On the Monday we go up on to the risers at the back of the church for the first time. The sound now is different as we are singing out to the sanctuary, not into a wall.

On Wednesday the string players (violins, etc.) come and for the first time we sing with more than piano accompaniment; excellent although that has been, it is very different singing with the strings. Excitement starts to mount.

And then, on Friday night, dress rehearsal! 3 hours singing the program in concert order with a full orchestra. Maria has two rehearsals with the strings and just one with the rest of the orchestra. However they may have played the music before – and whether they have or not – what matters is how Maria wants to direct it for these concerts.

So out come the pencils as the orchestra players, in turn, make notes and notations in their scores.

Saturday morning comes and – no rehearsal! But we meet early before the concert and warm-up with the orchestra, while Maria runs through a few spots that she wants us to focus on.

And then, it’s show time.

In his poem “How It Stays with Me”, written in 2011 after his first year singing with Festival Chorus, award-winning Swampscott poet Clem Schoenebeck wrote:

“In the parish hall of the memory center, where neurons
Bind and gag the learned music, the choir awaits its cue
To release all hostages in remembered performance
Lights flicker on and off. It’s time. Women smooth wrinkles
From their long black dresses. Men tug and tighten red ties.
Sip of cold water, cough drop, quick trip to the head?”

In the first half of the concert we sing the major piece or pieces – this year a Bach Cantata and Mendelssohn’s Vom Himmel Hoch – Latin and German.

And then comes the intermission. “I think that went quite well.” “The sopranos sounded great.” “The basses were awesome.” “The altos were perfect on their entrances.” “Boy, didn’t the tenors sound great?” Members are complimented on their section by a singer in a different voice part. One of those choir things.

In the second half we sit in rapt awe listening to the children’s choir and the Bell Choir, and then we are back on the risers for the lighter part of the program.

And then it is over – or almost. The audience is on its feet with a standing ovation. The soloists and Maria are presented with bouquets. A voice is heard yelling Brava.

And then the children come back and join the adults and the audience in singing “O Come All Ye Faithful” with the full orchestra. We may not be singing Amazing Grace, but grace is what we have received. And it is amazing.

And then it is over. Until Sunday when we do it all over again. The warm-up is a little shorter. “You were great last night,” says Maria. “Just one or two sections I want to go over. Last night was the first full performance with the orchestra. So tonight you can do even better.”

And we try. We try our best, not our hardest because that does not produce the best sound. We have learned that being part of a chorus means not focusing on our own singing but contributing to the performance for the audience. Can’t reach a high note? Lip sync. Got lost in a Bach run? KEEP SMILING and come back in when you can.

The performance. And when we hear the CD a couple of weeks after the Concerts, we pinch ourselves and say: wow! Because we don’t hear the concert; we hear the sound from our own section. Hearing the CD for the first time makes us understand the man who wrote one year and said: “I closed my eyes and could have been at Carnegie Hall.”

And how does this happen? An unauditioned group of singers of varying standards and experience? Who makes it possible? That would be Maria van Kalken, in her 31st year as Director; Maria, who seems to waive a magic wand rather than a baton; Maria who never stops smiling, never gets testy; Maria who repeats herself time after time (Look UP!) while still smiling. And Maria who treats the professional orchestra and singers with such courtesy that they always want to come back the following year.

And so we try that little bit more. For Maria.

After the Sunday concert we have the choir party. Some have to leave early because of work the next day; others have taken the day off or planned no morning activities. We sit and stand and eat and drink and talk and listen; with friends; friends who have become closer as the weeks go by; friends who are united by the shared experience of giving and receiving great joy.

And as Clem Schoenebeck said in his dedication to the poem:

“The concert is over, but the music doesn’t stop.”

Andrew Oliver
Market Analyst | Team Harborside | teamharborside.com

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