A Sonnet from our founder, Dr. Blaine Shover:
In celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Concord Chamber Singers, I have been asked to offer some background on the choir. Although I remain of sound mind (at least I pretend to be) details of 50 years ago are fuzzy. If you see an error of memory, please forgive me. So here it is.
1. Getting the Idea
It was a dark and stormy night... when... no, that’s not right.
Actually, it was a beautiful Fall day in September as I recall, and I was in NYC with my good friend Jean Baylor South. We had just attended a performance of Durufle’s Requiem conducted by the composer. It was the kind of warm sunny autumn day that provides the perfect setting for romantic movies and inspired ambitious projects. It was as we were walking along Riverside Drive when I mentioned to Jean that I would like to start a local choir that could sing both sacred and secular music. She thought it was a good idea and it was thanks to her that we started on this “ambitious project.” And so it began.
At the time, Jean knew quite a few people who sang in the ABE area and nearby New Jersey, so she began to make a series of calls to find out who might be interested. She didn’t even know some of them personally, but had only heard about them. This led to one embarrassing call when she was informed that the person she was inquiring about had passed away a few years before. But the effort moved on.
As I recall, the very first unofficial performance was given at the Presbyterian Church in Belvedere, N.J. I was choir director there at the time, and I engaged the East Stroudsburg (then- State College) dance troupe to perform a sacred dance concert. I drew together an ad hoc choir for the occasion. There were several local singers which included, of course, several members who were essentially founding members of CCS. Specifically, there was Sandy Shankle, a fine singer who was the minister’s wife, and an excellent tenor who was a farmer – Herb Pensack. (For most of the time I thought of him as “Mr. Chamber Singer”; I thought of Phyllis Longenbach, an original member who was with us for at least 40 (?) years as Ms. Chamber Singer.) There were others too, but I augmented the group with some of my friends from Philadelphia. There was Garth Persichetti (son of the composer Vincent Persichetti), Graeme Cowen and his wife (Graeme later went on to be the musical director of Singing City in Philadelphia) and our organist Marvin Keenzie, later to become a longtime member of the voice faculty at Westminster Choir College in Princeton, N.J. Following that performance those who were local decided to stay together and do another concert. And the Chamber Singers were born. The name for the singers came from Jean who reasoned that the word “concord” reflected what we would be about - a congruency of people of different nationalities, races, and faiths who loved to join together to make music. My philosophy was certainly influenced by my association with Elaine Brown and Philadelphia’s Singing City Choir.
2. A Controversial Debut
The first official performance (official in that we had by now selected the name Concord Chamber Singers and were publicized by that name) took place on a Friday night at the Temple Covenant of Peace, a Jewish Synagogue in Easton, PA. It was through one of our members who attended there that this became possible. Obviously, since it was a service, we could not sing any secular music but the sacred music was interfaith. Jewish music juxtaposed with a Haydn Missa Brevis – a condensed version of the Catholic Mass! It was a special service in that it was to center on the dedication of a memorial of a family member who had been a distinguished member of the Temple. Before the service, a good friend of mine was milling around and happened to meet one of the relatives of the family. She told him that the family was very upset that this concert was to happen. Fortunately, he didn’t convey that information to me before the performance! However, he did tell me later that the relative who had spoken to him previously sought him out after the performance to let him know that the family was thrilled with the way the service turned out. (Whew!)
Since we didn’t have any money, we were faced with somehow financing printed programs.
Fortunately, my friend was a partner in the distinguished Philadelphia law firm of Pepper, Hamilton, and Sheetz. He had his secretary type up the rather extensive program (the entire translation of the mass was included) and they were printed on law briefs– which was a very classy way to begin. Printed on the cover were the words “Hineh ma tov uma na'im” which translates “Behold, how good and pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.” (Psalm 133) We sang a simple canonic version of the melody and the text became a kind of “motto” for the choir.
3. What Next?
Our rehearsals were initially held at Wilson High School on Monday evenings. However, when I accepted the position as choir director at Wesley Methodist in the late ‘60’s. we began to rehearse there. We remained at Wesley until my retirement from the Chamber Singers in 2012.
It was a long and cordial relationship we had with the church and we were always appreciative of their hospitality.
When I took the job at Shippensburg University in 1971, I decided to try to continue my association long distance. Even though we were still a very young group, I had developed strong feelings toward the people in the choir and didn’t want to give it up. So I decided that I would try to do the 130 mile (one-way) commute. It made for a very long day since I would teach my Friday classes, drive to Bethlehem, do the rehearsal, and return to Shippensburg the same night. I slept through most of Saturday. In 1983, my friend and accompanist for the Shippensburg University Concert Choir, Nancy Fogelsanger, joined me and then later, another good friend, Norma Bricker made the trip with us. We did have a lot of laughs! On long weekends we would stay with friends who graciously housed us so we didn’t have to drive back and forth. In the early days, I frequently stayed with Dick and Julie Farrand who were long-lost singer friends from Penn State where we sang together in the University Choir and later, Jeff Sommer a former member of the Shippensburg University choirs. However, it was my long-time friend Nadine Sine who provided me with a home away from home for decades! Interesting associations: the Farrands from Penn State, Jeff from Shippensburg and Nadine from Temple. Nancy and Norma were invited to stay with several different people over the years, but for the last many years Eileen Wescoe showed them warm hospitality. But more about Eileen later.
4. What did we sing?
Initially, our season was made up of a Christmas concert and a spring concert but as the years went on we engaged in other projects as well. Some of the singers joined with Singing City and the Philadelphia Orchestra in performances of Mahler’s “Resurrection Symphony” (No. 2), and with the Mendelssohn Club and the Pittsburgh Symphony (in conjunction with the Pennsylvania Ballet) in performances of Orff’s Carmina Burana. They also joined with Lehigh University’s Choral Union under the direction of Steven Sametz in performances of the Brahms’ and Verdi’s Requiems and Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw, among others. This gave the singers an opportunity to sing music that was otherwise inaccessible because of our size. We averaged between 35 and 40 singers. However, we did venture to sing several choral works alone with an orchestra over the years performing Vivaldi’s Beatus Vir, Haydn’s Mass in Time of War, Cherubini’s Requiem, Mozart’s Grand Mass in C Minor as well as several other works. We were also privileged to sing with the Allentown Symphony (thank you Ron Demkee) and as back-up to Kenny Roger’s Christmas show on two separate occasions. Several tours of Europe also became a part of our musical life as we sang in some incredibly beautiful churches and cathedrals. Sometime in the mid-70’s we were invited to appear as the guest choir for Lehigh University’s Baccalaureate service – a tradition which has carried on to the present day.
But basically, the repertoire we sang was extremely varied, and I constantly struggled wondering if what I was doing was the right thing. Music is music, and hopefully some kind of music makes some kind of people feel good. Perhaps that’s a strange sentence – but it was a mantra I would carry in me. The point is that we were neither a completely “classical music choir”, nor a “pops choir” nor a “show choir”. People could never be sure of our musical identity and they might expect to hear anything from Lucas Foss or Alberto Ginastera to Rodgers and Hammerstein. Some in the musical community might have looked down on us for the “light stuff” we did, while others thought we were too “highbrow” sometimes. But fortunately there were people who were entertained by, and loved all kinds of music. I have never resolved this dilemma and I continue to program with my choirs these wildly different genres.
5. Who was who?
It is difficult to know how many people were members of the Chamber Singers over the years.
I just know that there were many very fine, loving people. And many became very close friends, extending their friendships beyond Friday evenings. (And there were always the post-rehearsal gatherings sharing in food and drink at various pubs over the years.) If someone in the group became ill, there were those who took care of them when needed. Weddings and funerals were “celebrated” with joy or great angst depending on the occasion.
There were so many people who were invaluable in terms of keeping the choir going. Since I lived so far away, all logistics were handled by the board, which was comprised of singers in the choir. Among their duties were taking care of the physical aspects of performances e.g. contacting hosts, assuring the venue would be available for rehearsals/performances, advertising, paying the bills and many other things. For the most part, I was able to appear and disappear each Friday night leaving the choir in the capable hands of the board. One often hears horror stories about “boards” of musical organizations. This was never true of the CCS board!!!! They were always wonderful! Over the years there were many board presidents who led the way. Some of the long-term presidents, were (in no particular order) Dave Evans, Nadine Sine, John Kohler, Kathy Miles, John Sise, and George Fennell. Forgive me if I have missed someone.
And then there were the accompanists! Any conductor knows that you can only move as fast as your accompanist. Although Jean Baylor South played for many of the first rehearsals, eventually Joe Maier, my friend and roommate in Philadelphia assumed the duty. Like any relationship, it could be good but also occasionally stormy. But he was a very talented and dedicated musician. Others who made contributions to the ensemble were Brian Henkleman, Chris Williams, Kim Heindel (on our European trip), Stephen Williams and Nancy Fogelsanger who stepped in to save us on and off numerous times in our history. And then there was Eileen Wescoe, an absolutely beautiful person, who was so talented at the keyboard and who also had the uncanny ability to read my mind.
At one point in time very early on, I was feeling discouraged. Not unusual for choirs, we were hurting for tenors. I attended a family picnic and was talking to my aunt (through marriage) about the group. She told me her nephew was a tenor, maybe I could ask him. Then she told me he was a graduate of Westminster Choir College. I thought “good for him, bad for us.” A Westminster Choir school graduate is not going to want to sing with a community choir. But I was wrong – and a wonderful association began with the tenor extraordinaire – Greg Oaten. Not only did he sing, but he also frequently did sectional rehearsals, coached us in foreign languages, and took over when weather kept me from getting to the church. A beautiful solo voice and an incredible sense of humor as well! I will always be grateful to him for joining us at exactly the right time – and staying with us throughout!
6. Into the Future
As 2012 approached, I knew it was time to retire as conductor. It certainly wasn’t because I was tired of conducting the Concord Chamber Singers, but I was tired of the 5 hour drive each week through increasingly heavy traffic. We would often “wade” through traffic tie-ups around Harrisburg and then again around the Lehigh Valley. And the trucks!! And the crazy drivers!!
When asked why I retired as conductor, I told the story about one of the ministers at the church where I was choir director. Sitting in the front row Sunday after Sunday I almost felt a responsibility to reply to the hypothetical questions she would ask us. One Sunday she said, “When do you feel closest to God?” and then she repeated, “when do you feel closest to God?” I had all I could do not to shout out “On route 22 when I’m driving to Chamber Singers.” And then I knew for certain it was time to hang it up. Upon my announcement that I would no longer be conducting, the first thought from the Board was to disband. But I didn’t want to see all that they had accomplished over the years disappear. And so they began a search auditioning several conductors and ultimately chose Dr. Jennifer Kelly. I felt the choice was perfect! For one thing – I didn’t want to be compared to the new conductor. With my gray hair and advanced age, I didn’t want some other guy with gray hair of advanced age taking over (though I never expressed that out loud!) And exactly the right person came along – Jennifer is intelligent, talented, musical, beautiful, and young! There’s no comparing!!!
I am happy for the Concord Chamber Singers as they continue making music and wish for them another 50 years of singing.
And most important - thank you CCS – you, along with my family, have been my life!