Accustomed to gathering regularly to make music, those of us who are choral singers have had six months without this (often weekly) source of comfort and joy.
You can sing along with recordings, embark on some sporadic ventures on YouTube, or even warble in the shower. But it’s not the same as joining with others to craft something that’s greater than yourself.
Ensembles everywhere are looking for ways to stay connected, and throughout the pandemic, conductor David Schelat has been Zooming with members of his three ensembles – Mastersingers of Wilmington, Center City Chorale and the Chancel Choir of First & Central Presbyterian Church – to keep their collegial spirit alive.
But recently, he decided it was appropriate and timely to sing again.
In mid-September, David invited members of these groups to meet downtown. Strictly adhering to gathering requirements, he required masks and RSVPs and limited us to 30 of a potential 70 singers.
The response was – not surprisingly – enthusiastic.
And so, on an early October Saturday morning, with the generous assent of facilitys owner Buccini/Pollin Group, we trudged up steps to the top level of a downtown Orange Street parking garage. There we picked up prepared packets of music, arranged ourselves in four voice sections on our blue tape marks, pulled out the five chosen choral works, and began to sing.
Choral singing is universally loved by its worldwide participants, who cite the sense of community it creates as they breathe together, listen to one another and seek a unified sound. It embraces singers of all types – from enthusiastic volunteers to professionals – and our group was no exception.
Several were highly trained, sought-after paid singers; others were (as one singer self-described) “a church choir soprano.” But we were all there for the same reason, and it was heartening and moving to gather once again.
David chose a variety of music, and we began with a work many of us knew – the motet “Rejoice in the Lord Always,” written by that famous composer Anonymous sometime in the 16th century.
Each singer was at least 6 feet from the next person (sometimes more), with the entire group spreading about 40 feet from side to side.
Choir members normally like to be in proximity, so at first our attempt to achieve a blended sound across those distances was challenging – even humorous. But oddly, the garage’s vaulting open spaces and its drab concrete surfaces were surprisingly cathedral-like – one singer called it “the Garage Majal” – and slowly, we got a group sound going.
After we acquired some choral equilibrium, we sang David’s own 2006 composition “If Ye Love Me,” a touching anthem, especially in these times, and a favorite of his singers. Then we launched into the lively “Soon-Ah Will Be Done” in an arrangement by William Dawson, a Black composer who was one of the first to bring spirituals into the concert halls.
Next, David led us in Louis Vierne’s powerful “Kyrie” from his “Solemn Mass.”. Vierne was the organist at Notre Dame from 1900 t0 1937, and the work was written to be sung in the vast spaces of that Parisian cathedral (alas, no music there now after the great fire). It sounded surprisingly resonant in our “garage acoustic.”
And we finished with a rousing Zulu song, most probably murdering that liquid language but reveling in its triumphant music.
Some of these works were sung a cappella (without any accompaniment), while for others David played on an electronic keyboard powered by a really, really long extension cord. The hour-long gathering felt safe and welcoming.
Above all, even though we couldn’t greet one another with the usual hugs or handshakes, it was powerful to be once again in a musical embrace.
“People who love singing together have missed it a lot,” said David, “and I felt that this was a way to pull these singers together in a way what would be both safe and meaningful.”
Our enterprising conductor is planning another garage gathering Saturday, and he’s expecting another enthusiastic response.
Gail Obenreder is a member of Mastersingers of Wilmington and writes about the arts for various publications.