Handel Choir to cap 80th season with concert of diverse works

Baltimore Messenger, Towson Times
Singing is a labor of love for members of the 80-year-old Handel Choir of Baltimore.

Carl Schmidt, a retiring Towson University music history professor and former board member of the Handel Choir of Baltimore, was doing research for a possible brochure about the organization when he came upon an archival "treasure trove" of information.

"The little brochure turned into a book," said Schmidt, 73, of Roland Park, who is now putting the final touches on "A History of the Handel Choir, 1935-2013," to be published later this year by Lexington Books, based in Lanham, Md.

Schmidt's book, subtitled, "Music Spread Thy Voice Around," is a testament not only to the choir's namesake, 18th-century composer George Frederick Handel, who wrote those words, but to the enduring popularity of the Handel Choir itself. This week, the oratorio society of 40 auditioned, mostly amateur singers will cap its 80th season with "Distant Bells," a concert on April 25 at St. Ignatius Catholic Church in Mount Vernon.

"It's one of the longest-running, continuously operating amateur choral organizations in the United States. It has its own niche," Schmidt said.

He said that many professional singers and musicians in the Baltimore-Washington-Philadelphia region are alumni of the choir, and that it has survived its share of financial hard times, including an economic downturn that in 2009 forced the 58-year-old Baltimore Opera Company out of business and left other local music organizations canceling concerts.

"We didn't have to cancel anything," Schmidt said.

Another testament to the choir comes from Roland Park resident Carolyn Koch, 25, who majored in psychology and minored in voice at Towson University. Now a psychology researcher at the Kennedy Krieger Institute, Koch sings with her mother, Cathy, in the Handel Choir, and said she joined because, "I wanted to continue singing in the Baltimore area and this was a reputable choir."

The end of the current season is a time for the Handel Choir's staff, singers and supporters to reflect on its past and its future, especially as Artistic Director Arian Khaefi continues a trend of adding contemporary and a cappella compositions to the choir's already popular classical repertoire.

"We do it all," said Khaefi, 30, of Rodgers Forge, who is also director of choral activities for Towson University.

'Holding their breath'

Founded in 1935 by Peabody Institute instructor and composer Katharine Lucke — "a grand dame of Baltimore music," Schmidt said — the Handel Choir has evolved musically, and often performs with a 25-member period orchestra that uses original instruments or replicas.

But it also performs with no instrumentation at all.

Last spring's a cappella performance of Sergei Rachmaninoff's "All Night Vigil" received an "extended standing ovation," said the choir's managing director, Anne C.A. Wilson, of Tuscany-Canterbury. "You could tell people were holding their breath."

Khaefi, now in his second year as artistic director, said he tries to do a mix of music that ranges from medieval to 21st-century compositions. The Distant Bells concert, with corporate sponsorship from Maryland law firm Venable, LLP, will feature not only 18th-century music by Antonio Vivaldi and the choir's namesake, George Frederick Handel, but modern composer Arvo Pärt's 1990 "Berliner Messe."

"I think we're exciting our subscribers," Khaefi said before leaving on a lecture trip to China last week. "People want great music and I don't think they're vested in any particular era. They want music that is compelling and speaks to them."

Wilson, 43, is a former Washingtonian, who produced National Public Radio's popular talk show, The Diane Rehm Show, but she has the arts in her blood. She took violin lessons starting at age 8, and played and sang in choirs during and after college.

Not wanting to be a producer or a reporter, Wilson moved to Baltimore in 2007 to enroll in the post-baccalaureate certificate program at the Maryland Institute College of Art. Deciding not to pursue a Master of Fine Arts degree, she gravitated toward the arts, volunteering for a time at the Creative Alliance in Highlandtown and later at the Baltimore Museum of Art, where she sold memberships.

Wilson was hired as a part-time operations director at the Handel Choir in 2010, and when part-time managing director Katherine Keefe left, Wilson became her full-time successor, wrapping operations duties into her new role.

Now, Wilson does a little bit of everything, from marketing to budgeting. She has a budget of about $230,000 a year and a small staff that includes Khaefi and part-time associate conductor and accompanist Tom Hetrick, who is also organist and choirmaster at St. John's in the Village Church in Waverly.

The choir each year does two performances of Handel's "Messiah," a mid-winter concert and a spring concert. The choir also performs fee-for-service shows at retirement communities, church services and civic events, and participates in Free Fall Baltimore's series of free events in October.

One problem for the choir is that, "We're scattered all over," with its offices at Brown Memorial Woodbrook Presbyterian Church on Charles Street at the city-county line, its rehearsals at the Unitarian Universalist church and Church of the Holy Comforter in Lutherville. Concerts take part at various venues, including St. Ignatius and Church of the Redeemer in Homeland, Wilson said. She said the board has talked of finding a permanent space to call home, but, "That's a little bit of a pipe dream at the moment."

Only four of the singers receive payments per practice and performance as professional choristers — Chris Allison, of Hampden; Katie Chen, of Remington; Vincent Sandroni, of the Parkville area; and Jason Epps, of downtown Baltimore. Choir manager Leroy Ludwick, who lives near Lake Montebello, earns a small stipend, Wilson said.

For most of the choir members, it's purely a labor of love. They are unpaid, plus they pay annual dues of $170 and buy their own discounted sheet music, a typical arrangement for choirs of the Handel Choir's size, Wilson said.

"It's really, honestly, an economic necessity," she said.

Loyal volunteers, including some of the singers, also do everything from posting online calendars of events to writing thank-you notes.

"A choir is just a lot of people giving of themselves to make magic happen," Wilson said.

Reputable choir

On April 6, about 30 people were gathered around a piano at Towson Unitarian Universalist Church.

Ludwick, the choir manager, was there to greet them at the door.

"I cheer them up and keep them motivated," he said.

"It's not a sing-along. It's hard work," said Leslie Greenwald, of Pikesville, a health economist who sings in the choir and also serves as board president.

Khaefi, the artistic director, who is cited by many singers as their inspiration, was away in China, but Hetrick, the associate conductor, played the piano and led the practice with brio. Hetrick, a former Charles Village resident who now lives in Pennsylvania, started them off with physical and vocal exercises, before rehearsing Vivaldi's "Gloria."

Sometimes, he stopped them to correct a pronunciation or a vocal interpretation, or simply to slow them down.

"The problem is the da-da-da-da-da," he said at one point. "People want to rush it."

"Better, better!" he said as they tried it again.

The singers rehearsed with only a short break.

"Music is my passion," said Catherine LaCosta, 66, of Lutherville, a certified public accountant. She sings in the Handel Choir with her husband, John LaCosta, 66, a retired engineer and a stalwart of the Young Victorian Theatre Company's choir.

David Frieswyk, 60, of Bel Air, a physician's assistant, said he sings "to get out with people who feel the same way I do about music."

Frieswyk now sings in the Handel Choir with his son, Matthew, 28, of Catonsville, who works in the technical support industry.

Matthew Frieswyk majored in music at Towson University. His father said he graduated from "the school of hard knocks."

"I got him into the choir," David Frieswyk said with a grin. "I had to keep an eye on him."

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