It's a gorgeous morning for soccer and other Saturday pursuits, but Children's Chorus of Maryland concert choir members are inside, intently working through Benjamin Britten's "Ceremony of the Carols," in preparation for this year's holiday performance.
Artistic director Betty Bertaux conducts the kids, all musically gifted, with an uncanny mix of lenience and discipline. She lets the sopranos whisper when she works with the altos. But the sopranos know to be ready when it's their turn to sing.
If they sound great, Bertaux says terrific. If they're flat, she lets them know pronto. Her ear picks up the slightest meander from the pitch. And, before two jittery soloists begin, Bertaux demonstrates their task with a lovely soprano.
When Bertaux left Baltimore 12 years ago, these kids were toddlers. And Bertaux was heartbroken and exhausted. She knew she had to leave; at the same time feared she was letting down the organization she had founded in 1976 and built into a trail-blazing choral music program for hundreds of Baltimore children.
Bertaux didn't think she would ever come back. But last summer she did, to the delight of the chorus and its board. How Bertaux and the Children's Chorus of Maryland went their separate ways and found one another again feels like a tale divinely ordered up by some beneficent music god who believes in the power of transformation -- and happy endings.
A handsome woman who doesn't look her 60 years, Bertaux carves swift, deft directions in the air and punctures a stern demeanor with sudden, wry smiles. When the choir hits a troublesome spot, she resorts to the hand signals devised by Zoltan Kodaly to help young children learn to sing.
Like the late Hungarian composer and teacher, Bertaux is a highly accomplished musician of prominent stature in choral music. And, like Kodaly, Bertaux firmly believes she is not squandering her talent by working with children such as these. "The deal with children is that they deserve the best," she will say several days after the rehearsal. "And so much of what is given to them is not the best. ... If we're going to have top-quality, first-class adult musicians in our audiences and in our choirs and our orchestras, we have to start them very young."
As a public school music teacher in Baltimore County in the 1970s, Bertaux's frustration with limited opportunities for honing talented young voices led her to start the Children's Chorus. She approached scores of parents, tried to persuade them of the value of paying tuition for a choral music education. At the time, "treating the voice as a musical instrument" was a new concept, Bertaux says. Nationally, few children's programs existed, and locally, the Peabody Conservatory's preparatory program had no formal chorus.
Bertaux's pioneering efforts yielded six students, including her son Kevin, who gathered in her home for weekly voice and musicianship training.
Before she resigned, the chorus had become a full-fledged organization poised on a dilemma: to grow or not to grow. Bertaux wanted it to grow and to become its full-time artistic director. As she describes the split, Bertaux chooses words carefully. "The board disagreed with me, basically. I was more ambitious and had a greater vision for the chorus than was comfortable for the board."
Bertaux seized an opportunity to move to Houston. Leaving was hard; Baltimore was where she had raised her son, where she had put down adult roots. As she took teaching positions in Houston and pursued a master's degree in composition at the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University, Bertaux was able to put her departure in perspective: "I'm very philosophical about these sorts of things; when one door closes, others open. I'm able to let go of [the past] and look forward to new adventures."
After living in Houston for five years, Bertaux took a temporary assignment at Holy Names College in Oakland, Calif., where she had received her master's in the Kodaly method. When the year ended, she remained. California -- its landscape, climate and freedom from East Coast angst -- allowed her to develop "a serenity, an inner peace." It was a time, she says, "to reflect on the events of my life and develop some wisdom."
Bumps in the road
In Baltimore, the Children's Chorus' path was not as serene. It endured shaky years of internal bickering and was rattled by swift turnover in the director's seat and on the board. Growing pains within young arts institutions are not unusual. But the chorus acquired a reputation for being snooty and for draining the fun from singing. Some orchestras, opera companies and other musical organizations in need of children's voices stopped calling. The chorus left "a lot of broken fences" in its wake, says Lorene LaBerge, a chorus instructor with three children who have grown up in the choir.
Because the chorus meant so much to her, it was a difficult time, LaBerge says. "This organization gets in your blood and takes over your life."
As the chorus struggled, Bertaux was becoming a nationally known composer, arranger and teacher, much in demand as a consultant and lecturer. In Baltimore in February to conduct workshops for faculty and concert choir members, Bertaux immediately cleared the air with her dynamic teaching skills and passion. It was her first time working with the chorus since she had left.
"I wasn't prepared to like her that much," LaBerge says. "I was totally amazed, my mouth was hanging open the whole weekend. It was like someone had waved a magic wand. Very rarely in my life have I seen anything like that. The kids stood up and said, 'Wow!' "
Bertaux now saw herself as a mentor to the institution she had founded. She signed on as part of the search committee for a new artistic director, the full-time position she had originally envisioned. But even as she participated in the search, Bertaux was haunted by the response to her concert choir workshop. She remembers how one girl had exclaimed, "'You really kicked butt in there. We haven't sung like that in a long time.' "
The more she thought about it, the more "I realized I was probably the best candidate," Bertaux says. "I shook the thought out of my head." But the thought persisted. "I kept feeling pushed in this direction."
Bertaux withdrew from the search committee and plunged into the pool of applicants. "She was in that pool with everybody else," says Joanne Rubin, at the time vice president of the chorus board. "And I really admired her for going through that process for a choir that she started."
Bertaux, as accomplished as she is, doesn't view her latest career choice as a step down or lateral move. It's not just that the kids deserve the best instruction, or that her work will trickle into the culture at large by way of each new, talented voice. "I get something out of it, too," Bertaux says. "I happen to love the sound of children's voices; their clarity and beauty are, musically and aesthetically, very satisfying to me."
And, she can apply her full complement of skills to the job, composing sophisticated pieces for upper-level choirs, and deceptively simple pieces for gifted, but untrained, 6-year-olds. Accomplishing this, she says "is a real art."
Their journeys have brought Bertaux and her chorus together again, ready to grow in the way she had hoped once before. "I left one person and I came back another person, better equipped to take on the task than the person I left as," says Bertaux, who signed a five-year contract with the chorus. She is no longer apt to personalize differences, harbor bitterness or other feelings that can obstruct the choir, she says.
For the chorus and Baltimore's music community, Bertaux's return is a true boon. "I really do think that even if she hadn't been the founder, they're very lucky to get a person of her ability at this time," says Tom Hall, director of the Baltimore Choral Arts Society. "She's got a very good imagination, key when working with children. ... By no means is she thinking, 'This is the way I used to do it, so let's do it again.' She's really starting from scratch."
Bertaux's initial effort to launch the choir proved prescient. Children's choruses are the fastest growing segment of choral music groups across the country, says Hall, also president of Chorus America, the national association of professional and volunteer choruses.
Bertaux, who has three grandchildren in the chorus, is planning ways to attract new patrons and tackling curriculum for new preschool and high school programs. At last, she and the organization are on the same page. Michael Mauro, chorus board president, says Bertaux was "chosen not only for her conducting and teaching talents, but also because her vision for the future of the Children's Chorus of Maryland matched the board's strategic plan."
As she mends fences, there is no denying Bertaux's presence alone has had a settling influence on the organization, as palpable as her conducting abilities or strategic goals. Perhaps it is because as Bertaux has learned to lead the way, she has learned to listen. She teaches the same life lesson to her students through music.
As the Saturday morning rehearsal draws to a close, Bertaux offers a fable based on a previous visit to the chorus by a member of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. It is the tale of the second trumpet. The second trumpet's job -- "to blend with the first trumpet's tone, articulation and intonation" -- is probably more important than the first trumpet's, she tells her most experienced singers. The second trumpet is "good at listening."
Bertaux continues: "As singers, we should all be second trumpet players."
The Children's Chorus of Maryland presents three holiday concerts in December:
* Catonsville Presbyterian Church, Frederick and Beechwood avenues, 3 p.m., Dec. 5; call 410-747-6180
* Temple Baptist Church, 1800 N. Wolfe St., 5: 30 p.m., Dec. 5; call 410-342-0016
* "A Festive Celebration of Songs and Carols to Drive Cold Winter Away," 3 p.m. Dec. 12, in Kraushaar Auditorium, Goucher College; tickets are $12 for adults; $7 for seniors and students; call 410-494-1480