Now in its 19th season, the CONCORA Summer Choral Festival provides a welcome mid-summer musical experience for choral singers and for the audience that attends the public concert at the conclusion of the Festival.
The Festival concert, which takes place this Saturday, August 5 at 4PM, is the most visible part of the Festival. But what goes on during the week, behind the scenes? Here’s an inside look!
Though CONCORA's Summer Choral Festival lasts only a week, it is many months in the making. Long before the first rehearsal, CONCORA’s Artistic Director Chris Shepard and Director of Operations Christine Laird have selected the concert repertoire, chosen a venue, and settled the myriad details that make the Festival week a special experience. Then we spread the word far and near, inviting choral singers from across the region to apply. The 105 singers selected for the 2017 Festival Chorus represent 49 towns in six states (CT, MA, NY, PA, FL, and TX!). About a third of the singers are new to the Festival this year, while others have been attending for several years, and there are a few who have sung in the Festival since its first edition in 1999.
The Summer Festival choir includes ten choral scholars, talented singers of high school and college age selected for their musical abilities and recommended by their music teachers and local choir directors. (Their participation is underwritten by generous donors.)
Some of our wonderful choral scholars!
"These terrific young singers are an essential part of the Festival Choir," says Chris. "For most of them, this will be the first time they will have experienced singing this magnificent music in a large ensemble, and with professional singers. It can be a life-changing experience. And they bring a special kind of energy and freshness to the adult ensemble that the audience will enjoy as much as we do."
Twenty of the 105 singers are professional vocalists from CONCORA. These experienced musicians serve as section leaders, providing guidance and support to the other singers in their vocal sections. During rehearsals, Chris often asks the CONCORA singers to demonstrate certain vocal effects and musical phrasings for their fellow singers. After having worked with Chris for two years, these CONCORA singers understand his interpretations and instructions, and can model his intent for the other singers.
The singers receive their music weeks before the first rehearsal, with the expectation that they will learn the music beforehand. With only five rehearsals before the concert, no time can be spent on teaching notes; rather, Chris uses rehearsal time to shape the 105 voices into a single ensemble of great power and beauty, with a unified presentation of each selection.
Rehearsals present learning opportunities of many kinds. Some of the participating singers are conductors of school, church, and community choirs. For these professional musicians, singing in the Festival choir is a welcome opportunity to be on the other side of the podium, where they can enjoy the choral experience as singers. Chris keeps these musicians in mind during the rehearsals, sharing tips on rehearsal planning and explaining some of his conducting technique. (“It’s not all smoke and mirrors!” he says.)
The main focus, though, is on the singing. During each rehearsal, Chris offers tips and suggestions for how the singers can modify their voices to create different effects, even within a single piece of music. For example, adding vibrato at just the right time creates a subtle vocal shimmer that seems to float across the ensemble. Taking vibrato away yields a different sort of shimmer, for when 100 crystal-clear voices align acoustically, they generate overtones that seem to hover far above the ensemble. And when the score calls for a simple crescendo (getting louder), Chris demonstrates how “a more sophisticated crescendo” can be produced not merely by increasing the volume, but by focusing and enriching the vocal tone, thus increasing the intensity of the ensemble's sound and creating an intense aural experience for the listeners.
“One of the joys of working with a large chorus is that each voice provides a unique color,” he observed. “It’s like having a palette with 105 different colors... The possibilities are endless.”
At Wednesday’s rehearsal, Chris and the ensemble explored the multi-layered counterpoint of “Sicut locutus est,” a chorus from J.S. Bach’s Magnificat that calls for the singers to be divided into five parts (SSATB) instead of the usual four (SATB). While this configuration presents an opportunity for performers and listeners to revel in a richer texture, it also presents a challenge: how can 105 choristers sing five different parts all at the same time, without creating a hopeless muddle?
The answer, Chris says, lies in understanding Bach’s use of “micro-phrases,” small melodic gestures that Bach combines to form long, soaring melodic lines. “What we hear as a long melody is actually a series of smaller musical units, which in turn may be variations on a basic melodic motif," he explains. Chris suggests that some of these micro-phrases are like the “golden threads” that may be found here and there in large medieval tapestries, where they draw attention to important elements within a large, sometimes complex image. “What matters is where the glitter is,” he says, adding that it becomes the conductor’s and singers’ job to find the "golden thread" in a musical selection and present it in such a way that the audience hears it and enjoys it, too.
With this in mind, the choir continues to rehearse “Sicut locutus est.” As the music begins, the five voice parts enter one after another – bass, tenor, alto, soprano 2, soprano 1 – overlapping each other in long lines of robust counterpoint. Within this dense texture, a brief legato (smooth) phrase – “in saecula” or “forever” – is distinctive; it's the most important idea in the text, and Bach gives it a musical shape that is very different from the rest of the piece. “There it is! This is the golden thread!” Chris says, then demonstrates how to use a vocal gesture to differentiate this phrase from the rest of the music. With each repetition, the gesture becomes clearer, and finally "in saecula" seems to float free from the busy counterpoint, subsiding as another voice takes it up. Can you hear it?
J.S. Bach, Magnificat: "Sicut locutus est"
CONCORA Summer Festival Choir in rehearsal August 2, 2017
Chris Shepard, Artistic Director Allan Conway, Piano
Over the course of the week, this sort of analysis and exploration is applied to each of the eleven selections on the concert program, and gradually, the singers begin internalize these principles, so that their singing becomes more unified, more purposeful, and more nuanced.
Providing steady support from the keyboard, pianist Allan Conway seems to be able to read Chris’ mind, knowing exactly where to start and stop, which pitches to give, and when to offer a little pianistic boost to a vocal section to help them stay on track. A choral accompanist has to be able to toggle effortlessly between two very different roles: first, to support the singers and conductor during the working parts of the rehearsal, and then to impersonate an entire orchestra during run-throughs and, of course, during the performance itself. It takes a confident, skilled pianist like Allan to master these orchestral reductions; as the name implies, the piano part is a condensation of all the orchestral parts a single score!
CONCORA's Artistic Director Chris Shepard with pianist Allan Conway
It’s not all hard work, though! The Festival week includes plenty of time for socializing, for reuniting with friends from past Festivals, and for making new friends with first-time singers. Over seven days, the singers enjoy five rehearsals, a buffet dinner, an ice cream social (YES), and a continental breakfast on Saturday morning. By the end of the week, the 105 singers have become a real ensemble, not only musically, but as a diverse group of people who come together to create a meaningful experience that they are eager to share with other music lovers.
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Please join the CONCORA Summer Festival chorus this Saturday, August 5, at 4PM, to be part of this wonderful experience. The Festival Choir, with Artistic Director Chris Shepard and pianist Allan Conway, will present favorite excerpts from masterworks by Bach (Saint Matthew Passion and Magnificat), Handel (Zadok the Priest), Mozart (Requiem), Haydn (Creation), Beethoven (Mass in C), Vivaldi (Gloria), Brahms (Requiem), Mendelssohn (Elijah), Rossini (Petite Messe Solennelle), and Fauré (Requiem).
Tickets for the August 5 Festival concert are just $10-$30 and are on sale now at CONCORA's secure ticket site or by contacting the CONCORA office (860-293-0567 or email@example.com). Tickets will also be available at the door on the day of the concert. Seating begins at 3:15 PM. Bethany Covenant Church, at 785 Mill Street in Berlin, CT, is fully accessible and air-conditioned, with ample free, off-street parking. Click the image or map below to open an interactive Google map.
In the 2017-2018 season, CONCORA celebrates masterworks of the choral art, with fresh interpretations of music that many consider the greatest examples of the genre, including the Requiems of Brahms and Mozart and Bach’s monumental Saint Matthew Passion, all under the direction of Artistic Director Chris Shepard.
Season subscriptions for all five main-stage concerts are on sale until October 15, 2017. A season subscription offers the best value and guarantees your seats throughout the season. Early-bird prices for single concert tickets are available through October 1, 2017. But don't wait to order tickets! Reserve your seats soon for each exciting program.
Visit http://www.concora.org for information on concerts, season subscriptions, early bird discounts, and more. Tickets for all CONCORA concerts and events may be purchased at any timeat our secure ticketing site, or by contacting the CONCORA office during business hours at 860-293-0567 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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CONCORA’s 2017-2018 season is made possible through the generous gifts of many individual donors and with the generous support of the following foundations and institutions: Aetna, Matching Gifts; American Savings Foundation; Bank of America, Matching Gifts; J. Walton Bissell Foundation; Citizens Bank, Matching Gifts; City of New Britain, Commission on the Arts; Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development, Office of the Arts; Edward C. & Ann T. Roberts Foundation; Fundraising Solutions; Ensworth Charitable Foundation; Greater Hartford Arts Council; Helen M. Saunders Charitable Foundation; Richard P. Garmany Fund at the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving; Robert C. Vance Charitable Foundation; SBM Charitable Foundation; Truist, Matching Gifts; United Way of Rhode Island, Matching Gifts; UTC Goodrich, Matching Gifts; William and Alice Mortensen Foundation; William T. Sloper Trust for Andrew J. Sloper Musical Fund.