It was hard to tell what President John Tyler could have been thinking as The Dan Meyer Choir spent Sunday afternoon rehearsing "Love Songs of the Presidents."
The life-sized cardboard cutout of Tyler, who was U.S. president from 1841-45, looked suave but serious with his hands in his pockets as he stood over the shoulder of choir member Debra Colmers, of Oakenshawe, during the choir's final rehearsal in Charles Village on Sunday. He wore stylish threads of his day and an inscrutable expression of pursed lips and narrowed eyes, even as the choir sang, "I Could Not Live Without Thee," a song based on his own 1855 ode to his second wife, Julia Gardner Tyler.
"Thy smile gives light and life, love,
To a heart which beats for thee."
Tyler was one of many cutouts of presidents that Meyer purchased online as performance props.
Meyer, a music teacher at the Institute of Notre Dame private prep school in downtown Baltimore and choirmaster and organist at Corpus Christi Catholic Church in Bolton Hill, has spent more than a year writing four-part choral music with lyrics he said range "from sweet to scandalous," mostly culled from love letters and poems penned by past presidents to their wives and significant others.
This week, Meyer, 47, will debut what he calls "a harmonious end product," as he leads his five-year-old, Charles Village-based choir, in two concerts timed to coincide with Presidents Day on Feb. 12 and Valentine's Day on Feb. 14.
Opening with a lyrically embellished version of James Sanderson's "Hail to the Chief," the choir members, wearing special "Love Songs of the Presidents" T-shirts, will perform Sunday, Feb. 15 at the Maryland Ensemble Theatre in Frederick, and Monday, Feb. 16, at the Creative Alliance's restored theater in Highlandtown.
The choir members, all 18 of whom are volunteers with many from North Baltimore, have gathered faithfully every Sunday in recent months for rehearsals, usually at the 2640 Space, at 2640 St. Paul St., which is also home to St. John's United Methodist Church. The final rehearsal Feb. 8 was held nearby in choir member Eve Austin's social work office at 2526 St. Paul St., next to the CSX railroad tracks and the collapsed stretch of East 26th Street that Baltimore City is rebuilding.
At one point in Sunday's rehearsal, the choir paused as a train rumbled through the tunnel below.
"Love Songs of the Presidents" is a musical stretch for Meyer, of Arcadia.
"Usually, our concerts are more Baltimore-centric," he said. For example, one of last year's concerts was about the Baltimore of yesteryear, circa 1850-1930.
He said he personally loves the presidential songs and their musical variety — from somber to sprightly. He's especially fond of Tyler's romantic musings.
"He's becoming my favorite president — just because of what he wrote."
But Meyer said he hasn't test-marketed the songs on audiences.
"I'm kind of curious as to how they respond to it," he said.
At the final rehearsal, Tyler wasn't saying, but across the room stood a George W. Bush cutout. Bush was all smiles, even when the choir sang, "I Can Press," a kind of love song based on Bush's awkwardly worded explanation to an interviewer in 2008 of how he thought he could contribute to the Middle East peace process.
"I can press where there needs to be pressed,
I can hold hands where there needs to be hold hands."
Other highlights of the 12-song set list include "Hold Me in Paradise," based on Warren G. Harding's steamy missive to mistress Carrie Phillips in 1912.
"I love your mouth, I love your fire,
I love the way you stir desire."
Also getting their due are Thomas Jefferson's ruminations on Cupid ("Hope"), Herbert Hoover's declaration of love to a hotel barmaid ("Do You Ever Dream?"), the romantic musings of Theodore Roosevelt's wife, Edith ("One Tiny Room"), and lifelong bachelor James Buchanan's 1844 lament to a former male companion ("I Am Now Alone").
"I have gone a-wooing to several gentlemen,
But have not succeeded with any one of them."
The choir members, who have had ample time to take their measure ??? of Meyer's songs, are besotted with them — and with Meyer, an energetic force of nature, who led them in stretching exercises and vocal warmups before starting the rehearsal.
"Dan is an unsung treasure," said original choir member Valerie Staats, of Otterbein, a retired director of numerous nonprofits and now an AmeriCorps volunteer. "He is so talented, its really jaw-dropping."
Ed Stokes, of Oakenshawe, joined the first month, too, having no voice training.
"I was a little apprehensive," said the 58-year-old software engineer for the Social Security Administration.
Now, Stokes feels comfortable in the group.
"I've learned a lot about the voice as an instrument," he said. "I enjoy the creativity of the singing."
In some ways, the choir is as fanciful as the better-known Baltimore performing arts group Fluid Movement, with which the choir performed when Fluid Movement staged its War of 1812 water ballet last summer. Stokes' wife, Greater Homewood Community Corp. Executive Director Karen Stokes, is a member of Fluid Movement.
But although Meyer said his goal is to set a light-hearted tone in "Love Songs of the Presidents," Ed Stokes likes to think that the Dan Meyer Choir is more serious in nature.
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"Even though we have fun, we really strive for artistic excellence," Stokes said.
The fun is contagious and word-of-mouth has increased the choir's membership. Its members come from all walks of life. Eva Hendrix, of Charles Village, is a case manager for Health Care for the Homeless. Louis Perkins, of Radnor-Winston, is a real estate agent. Colmers is a professional therapist. Michael Habermann, of Lauraville, is a rock guitarist and songwriter.
"I kind of wanted to get some outside influences into my work," said Habermann, 24. "It's helped me a lot with my songwriting."
Colmers, 63, a longtime singer of classical music, signed on after seeing Stokes' T-shirt at an Oakenshawe block party.
"I really wanted to do something fun," she said. "This is incredibly fun."
For more information about the Dan Meyer Choir and its upcoming concerts, go to http://www.danmeyerchoir.com.