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Baltimore Choral Arts Society marks half a century of voice-raising

The Baltimore Choral Arts Society led by Tom Hall in a concert in the Our Lady of the Angels Chapel at Charlestown.
The Baltimore Choral Arts Society led by Tom Hall in a concert in the Our Lady of the Angels Chapel at Charlestown. (Don Watkins / Patuxent Publishing)

It's Monday night and the Baltimore Choral Arts Society, as usual, is packed inside a room of the Fellowship Hall at Grace United Methodist Church in North Baltimore, where the ensemble rehearses for 21/2 hours just about every Monday between September and June.

At a podium, music director Tom Hall is guiding 120 singers through the animated, rhythmically tricky "Hallelu Yah!" by local composer James Lee III, a piece that will premiere during the choir's 50th-anniversary concert Sunday afternoon at Goucher College's Kraushaar Auditorium.

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Hall stops the choristers frequently.

"The second beat's late."

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They try again.

"That still sucks."

The next attempt passes muster, but Hall calls a halt after a few more measures.

"That's like Anglican happy. Just a touch more Italian happy."

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Restart.

"That's better, you guys."

And so it goes, as it has for five decades of refinement and commitment that have seen the Choral Arts Society develop into one of the city's major musical institutions.

In addition to presenting its own concerts around the area, including a popular Christmas program televised annually for more than 20 years, the ensemble collaborates frequently with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (the BSO disbanded its own chorus in 2002).

Choral Arts singers have tackled much of the major repertoire — such works as Bach's B-minor Mass (they will join the BSO for performances of it in May); the Masses of Haydn; the Requiems of Mozart (it will be on Sunday's program), Brahms and Verdi; Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

Music of Bach launched the first of the Choral Arts Society's 50 seasons on June 4, 1967 — the "St. John Passion," performed at Kraushaar Auditorium by a 60-strong chorus, guest soloists and an orchestra of about two dozen musicians from the BSO.

On the podium was founding music director Theodore Morrison, a Baltimore native who grew up in Hampden and, at 19, became organist and choirmaster at the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Guilford. His love of choral music got an extra boost in the mid-1960s.

"The Munich Bach Choir with [founding director] Karl Richter gave a concert at the Lyric," Morrison, 77, says. "There was a newspaper strike at the time, so I only heard about it through the grapevine. The choir must have been shocked at the empty hall. I was 25, and their performance of the Bach B-minor Mass blew me off the ground. I decided I wanted to do that."

Morrison eventually set out to create a chorus that would perform choral works in their original context, with whatever accompaniment — up to full orchestra — the composers specified. He sent out notices around town calling for singers.

"I think people were longing for this kind of chorus," Morrison says. "They came out of the woodwork to audition. I used the Munich Bach Choir sound as my model. The chorus developed a gorgeous, clean, clear Germanic sound. That's what we built from."

The inaugural Choral Arts season had one concert; that number soon increased. Reviews and audience response proved favorable.

"It caught on," says Morrison, who stepped down after 16 years. "I felt there was a future for the organization. And I felt it was ready for a new director, a young, vibrant person. I thought Tom Hall would be terrific. He's entrepreneurial, which I was not as good at. He is not only musical, but he can also work with the public very well."

The Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Morrison left town to pursue a career as a teacher; he retired in 2005 from the University of Michigan, where he was director of university choirs as well as graduate studies in conducting.

He has also enjoyed considerable success as a composer. Morrison's absorbing opera "Oscar," about the last years of Oscar Wilde, premiered in Santa Fe, N.M., in 2013 and received an impressive East Coast premiere last year by Opera Philadelphia.

Colorful, richly harmonized portions of Morrison's "Missa Brevis" will be featured during the Choral Arts 50th-anniversary program, with the composer conducting.

Morrison also will lead the ensemble in an excerpt from "The Nativity," a work by his longtime friend, the late Norman Scribner, who founded the Choral Arts Society of Washington in 1965. Morrison and his Baltimore chorus premiered "The Nativity" in 1975.

"That was one of my favorite performances; it was just so beautiful," says Elizabeth Elliott, who has sung in the alto section with the Baltimore Choral Arts Society since the beginning.

Elliott, who was singing in a church choir when she spotted the announcement about auditions for a new choral group, figured there was no harm in trying. She made it.

"People understood from the get-go that this was different from a lot of other things that were going on in Baltimore then," says Elliott, now in her 70s. "And the first time we put an orchestra with the chorus — wow. That was something. It's still so satisfying being in this chorus. There's no messing around."

Ellen Clayton, a chorus member since 1978 and chorus manager since Hall's tenure began in 1982, seconds that notion.

Tom Hall, artistic director of the Baltimore Choral Arts Society, leads a rehearsal, ca. 1980s.____CREDIT: Baltimore Choral Arts Society - Original Credit: Baltimore Choral Arts Society
Tom Hall, artistic director of the Baltimore Choral Arts Society, leads a rehearsal, ca. 1980s.____CREDIT: Baltimore Choral Arts Society - Original Credit: Baltimore Choral Arts Society (HANDOUT)

"Tom expects us to learn the music at home," Clayton, 62, says. "And he is an expert at time management. He rehearses down to the second. Ted was a little looser at that. Tom is a perfectionist and wants us to produce what the composer wanted."

Having experienced the tenures of both music directors (Hall plans to step down after next season, his 35th), Elliott offers equal praise.

"I absolutely love them both," she says. "Theo had so much heart to put into it. Tom has the heart, too. I think he may have looked forward ahead more. We went from three concerts a year to I don't know how many. He has the music sense, but also such a good business sense."

The ensemble's initial budget was $7,000. Today: close to $770,000. Unlike many arts groups, Choral Arts also has an endowment, established in 2002 and now worth $1.6 million.

Along the way, professional singers were added; paid choristers currently make up about 20 percent of what Morrison calls "an amateur choir in the best sense of the word 'amateur.'"

The mix of voices heard so far during the Choral Arts golden-anniversary season measures up strongly. A performance of two deeply lyrical French works, the Requiem by Gabriel Faure and the Requiem by Maurice Durufle, underlined the quality.

"Everybody auditions every year," says Hall, 61. "People may bring the emotional commitment, longevity and other valuable dimensions to the endeavor, but if they don't have the vocal ability, you have to ask them to step aside. Our philosophy is that we put the best team on the field."

Dan Kooken, a member of the bass section, sang for a couple seasons in the mid-1960s before going into the Navy. ("I got in trouble with Ted for talking too much; I remember that.") He rejoined a decade ago and, retired now, commutes from York, Pa., for rehearsals and performances.

"My greatest lifetime memories are flying, baseball and music," says Kooken, 67. "I equate the high I get from singing in the chorus to flying F5 Phantoms in the Navy. The talent of this group simply amazes me."

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One of the younger, newer members feels the same. Soprano Jessica Lynn, 30, is in her first year. She has already had a chance to step into the spotlight, singing a radiant solo during the Faure Requiem performance in November.

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"This is one of the most professional choruses I've heard in terms of sound, appearance and musicality," Lynn says. "Tom and the chorus are just a great breath of fresh air. I'm really grateful to Tom for taking a chance on me."

Hall also takes a chance on new repertoire for the chorus. He has introduced the singers to about 200 pieces of music, including several world or local premieres. Next season, Choral Arts will premiere a piece by Baltimore-based Jonathan Leshnoff based on Edgar Allan Poe poems.

"My priority now is to hand it over to someone else," Hall says. "The administration is run very well; the board of directors is solid; the audience is loyal and enthusiastic. The elements are there for this to be a great job for the next person."

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