, Newburyport, MA

September 6, 2013

Musical milestone

Newburyport Choral Society celebrating 80th anniversary season

By Ann Reily
Features Editor

---- — If the Newburyport Choral Society were to have a catchphrase, it would probably be: “Anyone can sing.”

It’s a mantra often repeated by music director Gerald Weale and one that comes up repeatedly when members of the group talk about their experiences.

And with the nonprofit organization kicking off its 80th anniversary season this week, it’s also something the singers hope that anyone considering joining them will remember.

One person who always thought he couldn’t sing is Al Cox, a 62-year-old bass who had no previous musical experience before becoming a member in 2010.

Cox, a Newburyport resident who had attended choral society performances for years, was at the group’s annual Summer Sing during Yankee Homecoming that year. Though audience members are encouraged to sing along, he was really just there to listen and support his son Joe, who was thinking about joining the society.

Weale approached the two after the concert, “just because we were hanging around at the end,” Cox said.

“He talked us both into singing,” he said. “I said, ‘I can’t sing.’ Jerry’s response was, ‘Of course you can. Anyone can sing.’”

And Cox soon discovered that he could, in fact, sing and has since learned how to read music and how to harmonize with his section.

“It’s actually been quite wonderful,” said Cox, who also serves as the fundraising director. “I have used this as a way to really stretch myself. This is outside my comfort zone. To be suddenly going in a new direction is scary, but it’s very exciting.”

Vice President Patricia Levesque also recalls being intimidated when she first joined the choral society in 1988, inspired by the group’s performance of Handel’s “Messiah,” a piece it will revisit for this year’s Winter Concert. But she quickly fell in love with “just the pure pleasure you get in this music.”

“It’s one thing to listen to music, but it is another to put your voice to music and be able to accomplish and master music on another level,” said Levesque, who lives in Newburyport. “It’s very rewarding, and it’s a very personally satisfying thing to do.”

The choral society has come a long way since its inception in 1934, when St. Paul’s Church organist and choirmaster Clifton Lunt combined his small Amesbury women’s choir with volunteers from Newburyport. The new group had 145 members by the end of that year and performed its first concert in April 1935.

Membership has fluctuated throughout the years and now hovers around 100 to 120, with singers coming from across the North Shore and southern New Hampshire. They rehearse once a week from September through December and January through May, with extra sessions scheduled before their annual winter and spring concerts.

“When I joined in ’69, there were probably 50 of us,” Ralph Johnson of Newbury said. “We gave concerts with pianos. It was very informal.”

The society’s concerts are now enhanced by a professional orchestra and soloists. Weale, who is in his 27th year of conducting the group, often draws on his contacts at the Boston University School of Music, where he taught for 29 years.

“We have terrific soloists coming right out of that connection,” Weale said. “I think it’s worth it for what it brings to the community.”

“It’s so much different to be able to sing and put it together with the orchestra and soloists,” said President Joanne Johnson, who joined husband Ralph in the group in 1971. “They’re very talented.”

Over the years, the choral society has also expanded its repertoire to include everything from classic pieces to more contemporary works and even original songs commissioned from local composers. The singers have even gone on three European tours, something that has since become “prohibitively expensive,” Weale said.

“That was a lot of fun, and we made a lot of friends overseas,” Weale said.

“Maybe sometime in the future, we can do that again,” Joanne Johnson said.

The theme for the group’s 80th anniversary season is “Continuing the Legacy,” and one of its goals this year is to broaden its efforts to encourage music in the community as a whole.

To that end, the society has introduced the “We Sing” program, which includes its popular Summer Sing at the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church. Nearly 200 people attended this past July’s singing of Haydn’s “Lord Nelson Mass.”

The program also aims to get youths more involved with choral music. In this winter’s concert, the choral society will be joined by the Molin Children’s Choir, a group of students in an after-school program at Molin Upper Elementary School.

“We’re just so looking forward to that,” said Penny Lazarus, development director. “Kids have wonderful voices, and you don’t have to be a practiced instrumental musician to do this.”

High school students are encouraged to join the choral society as a way to fulfill their community service requirements. They can also apply for the society’s scholarship, which awards $1,000 each year to a local student pursuing music education.

“We’re very concerned about the lack of music in our local schools,” said Lazarus, who leads the first altos and is also a private piano teacher. “Music and arts have taken such a big cut in funding.”

Lazarus has been a choral singer since high school, and she sought out the choral society as soon as she moved to Newburyport in 2000.

“The very first thing I did before even finding a house was to find a chorus to join,” she said. “It’s just a wonderful way to feel part of the community.”

If you go

What: Open rehearsals

When: Mondays, Sept. 9 and 16. Registration at 6:30 p.m., rehearsal from 7:15 to 9:30 p.m.

Where: Triton Regional High School cafeteria, 112 Elm St., Byfield. Park behind the school.

More information:

Save the dateS

Winter Concert

When: Saturday, Dec. 14, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Dec. 15, at 2:30 p.m.

Where: Belleville Congregational Church, 300 High St., Newburyport

Featuring: Handel’s “Messiah” and music of the season. The society will be joined by the Molin Children’s Choir.

Spring Concert

When: Saturday, May 3, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, May 4, at 2:30 p.m.

Where: Belleville Congregational Church, 300 High St., Newburyport

Featuring: Handel’s “Zadok the Priest,” Randall Thompson’s “Frostiana” and Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Dona Nobis Pacem”