Gil French is a man who sings for joy. All it takes is a few EEEs, OOOs and UUUMMMMMs, and he's limbered up and ready to go. Sometimes in his car. Sometimes in his home office. Definitely under his breath. Most important to him, however, is the time he spends singing with his choir.
The retired math teacher is a member of the Handel Choir of Baltimore, one of the oldest community choral groups in the state. In the 39 years since he joined, little has come between Mr. French and his rehearsals. "Singing is a tremendous release, a tremendous joy," says the tenor. "There's a thrill, a joy in singing difficult music. I wouldn't miss choir rehearsal for anything."
Each week, in a brown-tiled back room at the First English Lutheran Church, Mr. French and about 40 other choral music lovers gather to practice their cantatas and masses. This week, they're rehearsing Bach's B-minor Mass, to be performed tomorrow at the Second Presbyterian Church. (The choir has two components: the 40-member chamber group and a 70-member full chorus.)
When choir members get together, there's a bit of socializing -- tea, coffee and chocolate cookies are set out for those who wish to nibble. But promptly at 7:45 p.m., T. Herbert Dimmock III, the director, rushes in the door and up to the podium. Bearing a remarkable resemblance to Richard Dreyfuss in his most recent role as an orchestra conductor in "Mr. Holland's Opus," Mr. Dimmock raises his arms and the choir comes to attention.
And suddenly, the large, chilly room becomes warm and rich with music.
Though some singers are music teachers or vocalists just beginning a career, others are doctors and engineers, history teachers and psychologists, lawyers and computer analysts. One or two singers have joined as recently as a month ago; several, like Mr. French, have been with the group since the 1950s. Though the director, soloists and orchestra members are paid, those in the chorus sing because they love it.
For some, music brings emotional release. For others -- those who are trained musically -- the choir provides a chance to stretch themselves musically with classical compositions that can be difficult to perform. Still others are drawn by the sense of community the group provides.
"It's a bit of a thrill to hear the rise and fall of the music, to be involved with its production," says Doug Saxe, a retired computer programmer who has been in the choir since 1961.
Though Mr. Saxe, a Phoenix resident, has never sung professionally, he has studied piano and has taken voice lessons throughout his life. As a boy, he learned piano from his mother, who was a music teacher. While a student at Harvard University, he sang in the glee club. In the Army -- stationed in Stuttgart, Germany, and unable to find a choir to join -- he studied lieder, a form of song developed by German composers like Schubert. "I love to sing," he says simply.
He's not alone. The choir was founded in 1934 when a handful of music fans noticed there was no area choir to sing for a national teachers' convention that was coming to Baltimore. They got together -- and the singing began.
Though the group has rehearsed and performed every year since then, there have been a few shaky moments. In the mid-1950s, for example, it looked as though the group was about to go bankrupt, says Mr. French. To save themselves, members of the Handel Choir participated in a talent show held at the Hippodrome Theatre. The group's entry, of course, was the Hallelujah chorus from Handel's "Messiah."
Each entry was broadcast over the radio; listeners mailed in their votes for best performance. "Of course, since our choir had a lot of members with families, we could flood the station, but we were clearly the best act," Mr. French says, laughing.
The Handel Choir won first place prize -- $1,000 -- and was saved. "It may well be one of the most outrageous things we've ever done, but back then we were serious about it: Any port in a storm," says Mr. French, and added, "Handel pulled us through."
The choir has grown substantially since then. In the eight years since Mr. Dimmock, a graduate of the Peabody Conservatory, became director, the choir's season has expanded from three performances to 20. Its material ranges from the traditional performances of Handel's "Messiah" to "Solomon," one of the composer's 22 other oratorios, which will be performed April 14 at Har Sinai Congregation. About half of the performances are free and held at places such as Harborplace or in nursing homes.
The budget also has expanded, from $46,000 in the late 1980s to $175,000. Under Mr. Dimmock's direction, the group's endowment has grown from nonexistent to $300,000. (He is aiming for $500,000, he says.)
Mr. Dimmock also has developed an outreach program through which he or one of two part-time staffers visit public schools to teach about choral music. "One of the things I have tried to accomplish -- and one of the things music is almost uniquely able to do -- is build bridges," Mr. Dimmock says.
Rather than conducting in concert halls, Mr. Dimmock seeks to bring his music to an array of places from synagogues to Lutheran churches and Catholic cathedrals -- and an array of people.
"The music we perform was written for these kinds of spaces. Were we to do a performance of the 'Messiah' at the Meyerhoff Hall with 2,000 seats and people removed from the stage, you immediately have a far different feeling than the one you get in another kind of space," he says. "The performing spaces we choose and the literature we choose make a big difference in how people react to the concerts."
But once he begins conducting -- and the choir begins singing -- the focus is solely on the music, he says. "My job is to have a vision of the sound and to know, technically speaking, how to turn that vision into reality. That's what we do in rehearsal. We don't talk about how to reach out to communities -- we sing."
Handel Choir performances include:
* Bach: B-minor Mass, Feb. 25, 3 p.m.
Second Presbyterian Church, 4200 St. Paul St.
* The Delight of Song: Chamber Choir, Sunday March 24, 3 p.m.
Brown Memorial Woodbrook Church, 6200 N. Charles St.
* Handel: "Solomon," April 14, 3 p.m.
Har Sinai Congregation, 6300 Park Heights Ave.
* Haydn: "Pauken" Mass. Mozart: "Haffner" Symphony, May 19, 3 p.m.
St. Ignatius Church, 740 N. Calvert St.