Choral groups learn excellence can be fun

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

To sing like this, in the company of other souls, and to make those consonants slip out so easily and in unison, and to make those chords so rich they bring tears to your eyes – this is transcendence. This is the power that choral singing has that other music can only dream of."

– Garrison Keillor

The auditorium of Temple Beth-El here is buzzing with lively chatter and laughter, as 120 members of the Masterworks Chorale assemble to rehearse.

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On this typical evening, these volunteer singers – who work long hours as doctors, lawyers, scientists, and educators – are in high spirits, exuding a good-humored camaraderie as they prepare to sing together.

"Once I get there and start singing, I feel young, like a kid in college again," says Susan Larson, a Harvard University arts administrator. "I'm doing something new, creative, and challenging. I find I'm renewed."

Her sentiments are echoed nationwide. Over the past two decades, community choruses have sprung up everywhere, supplementing the wealth of church choirs that traditionally have formed the musical backbone of many communities.

A National Endowment for the Arts study found that 1 in 10 American adults now sings weekly in some kind of chorus.

The Masterworks Chorale is among the cream of the crop of community choruses, due largely to its venerable artistic director, Allen Lannom, who is celebrating 50 years as the chorale's head. It is the longest tenure for a director of an independent chorus in the United States.

Mr. Lannom has turned the Masterworks Chorale into an ensemble known not only for the quality of its musicmaking, but for the depth and difficulty of its repertoire: from Beethoven's imposing "Missa Solemnis" to Carl Orff's challenging 1937 "Carmina Burana," which capped this year's season in May in front of a sold-out crowd of nearly 1,200 seats.

Lannom, who studied with choral conducting legend Julius Herford and was an assistant to Robert Shaw, one of the most influential figures in American choral music, was involved with the first US performance of "Carmina Burana" in 1954, preparing the Boston University Chorus for the legendary Leopold Stokowski.

Lannom took over the Masterworks Chorale in 1952, when it was still called the Lexington Choral Society.

At that time, there were few other community choruses around, and the quality of choral singing in general was much lower.

"Choral singing was just supposed to be fun," he recalls. "But now it's much more disciplined and artistic."

For many choristers, the more rigorous and disciplined the better. (Membership in prestigious groups is by audition.)

"The [choral groups] I've enjoyed most are the ones where the director is very demanding, who says, 'We're here to make incredible music.... Do your best, so you get good enough to have fun with it.'

"Those kind of organizations have a special magic about them," says Adam Krueckeberg, who now sings with Masterworks Chorale.

"The enjoyment comes from the quality of your product," says Dick Dixon, who has sung with Masterworks for 45 years. "It's not just, 'Let's have a general sing' anymore."

The chorale, which hires a professional orchestra for its concert series, has also guested with established orchestras in the area. However, the ensemble still sticks to its roots in the community.

Every year, the group sponsors a "Messiah" sing-in. And for more than 30 years, the chorale's 10-week "Summer Sing" program has offered the public opportunities to perform a different choral masterpiece each week. The program draws several hundred singers, amateur and professional, from the Boston area.

It is a reflection of choral singing's impressively broad appeal, crossing boundaries of age, ethnicity, and economic status.

It not only offers musical satisfaction, but the opportunity to share and bond socially, contributing to a common sense of trust, connectedness, and even civic engagement.

"By the end of rehearsal I may be physically tired, but I'm really energized," Mr. Dixon says. "You're breathing deeper to produce sound and using energy in a way that is really healthy."

"It's like getting plugged into a big generator and getting recharged for a whole week," Mr. Krueckeberg adds.

It is a testament to the power, both physical and emotional, of communal musicmaking.

Many have turned singing with a community chorus into a lifelong passion, from Lannom, with 50 years and no plans to retire, to Dixon, who proclaims adamantly: "I'll just go on singing 'til I can't anymore. It's part of my life, and I think it will be till I die."

• For more information on choral singing, visit www.chorusamerica.com.

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