Phoenix Award Honors Choral Resilience In Pandemic
New England choruses have been severely tested in the past 18 months, and they have responded with tenacity and ingenuity. This year, Choral Arts New England decided to highlight some of the choruses who have made notable accomplishments during the pandemic by instituting a special Phoenix Award. The award particularly recognized continuing to make music in some way; engaging membership and the community; being creative, visionary and resourceful; contributing to artistic well-being; keeping musicians and/or staff employed; and providing educational opportunities.
Over 40 nominations were received, all inspiring testiments to the continued vibrancy of choral singing, and ten award recipients were chosen:
- Boston City Singers (Boston, Mass.)
- Broad Cove Chorale/Unicorn Singers (Hingham, Mass.)
- Cambridge Community Chorus (Cambridge, Mass.)
- Consonare Choral Community (Mansfield Center, Conn.)
- Ensemble Altera (Johnston, R.I.)
- Jubilate Chamber Choir (Marblehead, Mass.)
- The Keene Chorale (Keene, N.H.)
- Mak'hela, the Jewish Chorus of Western Massachusetts (Northampton, Mass.)
- Newport Navy Choristers (Middletown, R.I.)
- Voce, Inc. (Hartford, Conn.)
The recipients will be recognized at the Choral Arts New England Award Ceremony on October 23, 2021, in Wellesley, Mass.
Following are brief descriptions of the recipients and their accomplishments.
Boston City Singers take great pride in their programs and opportunities for underserved youth to grow and challenge themselves, build friendships, learn about other cultures, and give back to their community. At the onset of COVID-19, they quickly moved to on-line programming platforms, and maintained participation from 85% of their teens. The programming team offered a series of electives to their middle/high school singers, including conducting, ukulele, songwriting, learning about different genres of music, and hip-hop production. They also leveraged Zoom for new collaborations with twelve ensembles from the U.S. and beyond. Their dedicated teacher and choreographer, Ms. Wendy, developed a weekly video series to engage singers from 12 ensembles in the U.S. and beyond. They engaged a music therapist for their Tour Choir who used wellness programming to create original music. Many singers said that rehearsals helped keep them sane during the shutdown. They also made thousands of children’s face masks. They kept making music during the pandemic, maintained their organization, grew audiences, and helped their community not just survive, but thrive, in unprecedented times!
The Broad Cove Chorale/Unicorn Singers did not let the pandemic stop them from making music and supporting local service agencies. They took their singing outside, meeting in kayaks out on the water during the summer months (creating a new vocal genre called “Aquapella”) and bundled up in backyards when the weather got colder. Throughout it all they were an active presence in their community and are emerging with a new sense of possibility for future events.
The Cambridge Community Chorus not only continued through COVID-19, but flourished! They were able to produce a holiday concert in December 2020 that was shared with community members from nursing homes and homeless shelters; gathered virtually on Zoom weekly to hone their individual skills; and eventually put on a performance of the Fauré Requiem in an MIT parking lot in partnership with several other choral groups in April 2020. Throughout all of this, they remained committed to paying their professional and administrative staff at their regular levels.
Consonare Community of Choruses, led by Sarah Kaufold, became a lifeline for its singers and audience during the pandemic. In fall of 2020’s “Ballads for Ballots: voting playlist for women by women”, the singers collaborated with the women of Concinnity to produce a song each week leading up to the election to inspire women to vote. In March 2021 they held a virtual women’s festival called “We are the Stories” which featured a panel discussion with several Black singers, composers and vocal directors. Concinnity’s “Unconventional Space” project featured recordings of songs in unexpected places, including the porch of the Mark Twain house, while connecting with the role of music in the Clemens family. In spring/summer 2021 the chamber ensemble, Voices of Concinnity, performed six outdoor concerts, collaborating with local artists and parks to create a plein air trail combining music and visual arts in a safe environment.
Ensemble Altera, under the direction of countertenor Christopher Lowrey, is a fast-rising American chamber choir in Providence, Rhode Island, "dedicated to bringing thoughtful, engaging and relevant programs of choral music to in-person and digital audiences at home and around the world." The choir turned professional through the pandemic, remaining committed to paying their musicians while providing safe venues and conditions for gathering in-person, and expanding their digital reach to make their offerings accessible to as wide an audience as possible, including an innovative series of digital concerts recorded in empty parking garages during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Jubilate Chamber Choir, in residence at St. Andrew's Church in Marblehead, Massachusetts, continued to rehearse weekly during the pandemic and performed every month from September 2020 to June 2021. They employed safety protocols, social distancing and masks. All of their Evensongs and concerts were broadcast to the Northshore community by Salem TV, and they also broadcast their performances on Facebook to reach a wider audience. In December 2020 they performed a chamber Messiah, socially distanced and masked, for which they employed professional musicians. In May 2021 they performed a Good Friday Passion service, followed by a Bach Cantata concert for Easter, and they finished their concert seasion in June 2021 by performing without masks, accomnpanied by viol consort that was supported by a grant from the Siblinger Foundation. During the entire period, they were able to pay each singer and instrumentalist for every concert each month.
Despite all the COVID-19 restrictions at the beginning of March 2020, The Keene Chorale’s board of directors met regularly with Music Director Cailin Marcel Manson to figure out how they could continue to engage their singers. By the beginning of 2021, they had a plan in place which included Zoom rehearsals along with recorded instructions by Mr. Manson for each chorus for Handel’s Messiah. In April 2021 they found a rehearsal space at the Keene Ice Arena to accommodate 35 singers (down from their usual 75), where they sang masked and six feet apart. Singers came prepared to rehearse one or two of the eight choruses during the next few weeks as they prepared for their upcoming performance. On June 5, 2021, masked and now three feet apart, the singers, along with five string players and a pianist, performed these choruses for nearly 100 guests. The singers sat on the floor where normally the ice was laid for skaters, and their guests sat in the stands. Admission was free, with a suggested donation of food items to benefit The Community Kitchen. The thrill of performing Messiah after having cancelled not one but two concerts, is one that their singers will long remember.
Mak’hela, “chorus” in Hebrew, is a Jewish choral group in Western Massachusetts dedicated to performing works of the Jewish world. Founded in 2003, their mandate is to break down the barriers between the Jewish and secular communities. When they heard nursing homes had been most affected by COVID-19, they were determined to send them a Chanukah concert virtually, and found a musician/engineer who connected them with instrumental musicians to play extra parts composed by their director. The program was sent to nursing homes all over the country through a YouTube link. They received many letters of thanks and had over 2,000 views. Five local groups joined Mak’hela to produce “The Jewish Music of the Pioneer Valley”. Members helped one another learn the music and also to record it. There were many singing telephone calls!
Since 1953, the Newport Navy Choristers have been performing to raise money for local non-proﬁt organizations. The chorus is comprised of active duty, reserve and retired military and their families. Their outreach to the community continued during the pandemic. Rehearsals were moved online, and two large virtual concerts were produced, thanks to the hard work of the chorus and the addition of former chorus members who had previously been transferred to other duty stations across the U.S. The Christmas production was distributed to local assisted living facilities and nursing homes where the chorus usually performs. The residents were on lockdown in their rooms and residence staff took the video from room to room for individual residents to enjoy. As military families, the choir members are familiar with the hardships and loneliness that occur when people are separated from loved ones. They say they were honored to provide support and cheer for their community, as well as for each other, during a difﬁcult time.
The professional choir Voce, Inc., partnered with bass-baritone Miles Wilson-Toliver during the pandemic to found Voices of Hartford, a choral community designed to provide young Hartford-resident musicians, age 14 to 21, with the resources they need to reach their full musical and personal potential. Members of Voce's professional choral ensemble, particularly those who teach voice and/or choral music, will continue to provide support for the new organization's educational mission. Voices of Hartford is committed to doing its part to add BIPOC (black, indigenous, and people of color) musicians to the ranks of professional and community choruses in Hartford and beyond.