You just can't keep good choral singers down.
Members of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Chorus, controversially disbanded by BSO management last year after more than three decades of volunteer service, are raising their voices again. This weekend, several dozen of them will make their debut with a new name, new direction and new goals.
The inaugural program by the Baltimore Masterworks Chorale is called Love and Loss, which seems loaded with implications. "I was just looking for a title that united all the pieces we're going to sing," says Jane Benson, president of the chorale. "But, in a way, it does speak to what we've been through - all the grief and anger we experienced last year, and the love we have for what we do."
When the nearly 150 singers in the BSO Chorus got the news that the ensemble would not exist beyond the 2001-2002 season, many wanted to stay together somehow. All those Tuesday night rehearsals, all those musical challenges and rewards, all the camaraderie - hard things to give up. It didn't help matters that the official reasons for the dissolution (not "world class," too costly, etc.) proved less than persuasive, not just to the choristers, but many others as well. More than 7,000 signatures were collected from the community protesting the BSO action.
The chorus finished out its final season with dignity - a solid, exciting Carmina Burana from the whole group last April, a lovely contribution to Mahler's Third Symphony by the women in June. Then, in September, the urge to resume singing brought many of the old gang back, determined to find another creative outlet. The result is the Masterworks Chorale.
"We started talking about forming a new chorus almost immediately after we got fired," Benson says. "We inherited money from the old symphony chorus. Groups had performed for years out in the community - separate from the BSO work - and put all the fees earned into a bank account under our own name, along with some other donations. The orchestra did not ask for it back. We have already pretty much used it up, though, just putting together the first concerts and two more we're doing in June. We decided to give these concerts everything we've got to make a splash. If that breaks the bank, so be it. We'll have to beat the bushes to keep things going."
For the first couple of months, the Masterworks Chorale's accompanist, Clinton Adams, led the rehearsals. "He's the one major thing that held us together through the autumn," Benson says. "Without the help he gave us then, we could not be putting on a concert now. His loyalty to us has been immense, and we owe him a debt of gratitude."
New York-based Frank Nemhauser, who was making considerable artistic strides as BSO Chorus director when the plug was pulled, had input into the new ensemble's initial programming and may conduct one of its concerts next year. To take the artistic helm on a regular basis, the chorale chose Mark Hardy, director of vocal music at the Baltimore School of the Arts, director of the Johns Hopkins Choral Society and chorus master of the Annapolis Opera.
"Like everyone else, I was surprised by the abrupt parting of the ways between the symphony and the chorus," says Hardy, who started in December. "I was really happy to hear that the group had been talking about staying together. Everyone has been very enthusiastic. They're very game about taking on not just the music, but the organizational part. And there's a general sense of gratitude."
University Baptist Church provides free space for rehearsals on the traditional Tuesday night ("which is now branded into everyone's DNA," Benson says). So far, between 30 and 75 singers have been involved with the chorale, Hardy says. About 45 signed on for this weekend's performances. "To be fair, a lot of people joined the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Chorus because they wanted to sing with an orchestra," Benson says. "Others wanted to stay together just until the BSO came to its senses and invited us back. So we are not expecting all the former members to join us."
(The chorale isn't the only option former BSO chorus members have to keep their voices in the ring. Eighty of them will sing in the Concert Artists of Baltimore's presentation of Brahms' Requiem March 28 at Meyerhoff Hall. A Baltimore Opera Company fund-raising concert being planned will provide another outlet for displaced BSO choristers.)
A chamber orchestra will be used for some of the chorale's first program, which includes Faure's Requiem and pieces by Brahms. But accompanying forces are likely to be on the intimate side, like the chorus itself, at least for now. "Because of size and, to a certain extent, budget concerns, we'll focus on two or three shorter works per concert," Hardy says, "instead of single, large works like Handel's Messiah. I am also a composer, so I have a vested interest in promoting newer music."
Hardy likes mixing pieces from different time periods that share common texts or themes. For a Christmas program next year, he's thinking about such intriguing fare as a Mass by 17th-century Frenchman Marc-Antoine Charpentier and Flight into Egypt by contemporary American John Harbison. Another concert might have Mass settings by William Byrd, Igor Stravinsky and Libby Larsen. "Programming will depend on funding and the size of the group, whether it grows or remains the same," Hardy says. "But we'll get away from core repertoire and explore music that is new for the singers and the audience."
Thanks to last year's petition drive by the BSO Chorus, the chorale has a large mailing list to help spread the word about its arrival on the scene. Responses so far have been positive. "Everyone seems to be rooting for this group," Hardy says. "I think most of our members are committed enough to keep this going," Benson adds, "even if it means we can only afford to sing music in the public domain or if we end up singing on street corners."
The chorale's June concerts will feature works by J.S. Bach, Herbert Howells and Aaron Copland that address issues of death and rebirth. That program, called "Beginnings and Endings," cannot help but sound like another metaphor for what the choristers experienced last year and what they hope to accomplish now.
"Singing well is the best revenge," Benson says. "Not that we are out for revenge. We're just out for singing well."
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Catonsville Presbyterian Church, 1400 Frederick Road; 3 p.m. Sunday at Grace United Methodist Church, 5407 N. Charles St.
Admission: $15, $12 for students and seniors