Berkshire Children’s Chorus turns 25
Young members of the Berkshire Children’s Chorus run through some songs before the annual House Concert fundraiser, at the home of Bobby Houston and Eric Shamie in Alford.
Photos by Gregory Cherin
The sound is ethereal. Pure, high tones fill the high-ceilinged space of the Old Parish Church in Sheffield. Fauré is followed by Mozart, then a South African song. Director Julie Bickford, a focused point of concentration, corrects a pitch here, a pronunciation there. It’s an intense rehearsal, but the attitude is unfailingly positive. Everyone is here to work.
On June 12, the Berkshire Children’s Chorus (BCC) celebrates its 25th anniversary with a concert at the First Congregational Church in Lee, performing sacred, classical, folk, and contemporary songs in German, Hebrew, Latin, Spanish, English, Serbian, and Xhosa. The concert will include guest appearances by professional musicians, including Nancy Loder, the BCC’s founding director, who led the ensemble for 22 years. And, in the tradition of the movie “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” alumni will return to the stage.
The Chorus is divided by age: Junior Choir (grades 1-5), Senior Choir (6-9), and Coda (10-12). Karen Sovak, director of the Junior Choir, believes that all young children can be taught to sing, so the Junior Choir does not require auditions, although first-graders must have a teacher’s recommendation. Entry to the Senior Choir and Coda are by audition. Coda’s very existence is a testament to the long-term appeal of the program—it was added when graduating senior choristers didn’t want to leave. This commitment is evident at a Coda rehearsal, with its juxtaposition of comfortable atmosphere and artistic intensity.
These kids have been singing together for years, and have attended hundreds of rehearsals. Director Bickford says that it’s a “concentrated rehearsal; every minute is accounted for” and the singers move seamlessly from one task to the next. Asked what BCC offers that school programs don’t, Bickford is in a unique position to compare. As a child, she sang in Connecticut’s Chorus Angelicus; now she teaches chorus at Monument Mountain Regional High School.
“The school programs are excellent introductions,” Bickford says. “But here, students make a conscious commitment, and with that dedication, we can do more difficult work. Also, the repertoire is different because this is a choir for treble voices only.” Rehearsals focus on technique such as breathing, tone production, pronunciation of foreign words, and—in addition to singing—music reading, sight-singing, solfege, and some basic music theory, subjects that school choral programs rarely have time for.
The benefits of music study are no secret; almost every week, new reports tout the benefits of childhood lessons. Sovak says that it starts from the first rehearsal of the very youngest children. “They learn how to act in a group, how to stay focused, how to work within a routine of warmups and practice, how to interact with each other, how to work toward a common goal.”
That’s good preparation for both music and for life, Bickford notes, adding “When you sing beautiful music in a beautiful space, it both moves you and communicates the importance of deep artistic experience.”
BCC Board of Trustees chairman Ellen Maggio points to the chorus’s community component. “The children interact with a broad spectrum of other Berkshire kids—kids from public and private schools—as well as professional musicians.” Her three daughters all sang in BCC; one, Alice, has joined the BCC board, and 17-year-old Eliza is in Coda. “Though they rehearse separately by age, they also perform together, so there is interaction among age groups.”
At a recent rehearsal, the Senior Choir gamely tackles Fauré’s challenging harmonies (the kids call the dissonances “weird”; Bickford counters that they are “awesome”; they settle on “different”). They then turn to the mysteries of German pronunciation in an arrangement of Mozart’s “Papageno Papagena” duet.
Jamie Lord, 14, has been a member of the chorus “forever,” she says, and plans to continue “as long as I can.” She’ll be moving up to Coda next year. “It’s so much fun to learn all these different songs. And it’s going to be really cool to be in Coda. I’ve always looked up to the Coda kids, and now I’m finally going to get to be one.”
Over the years, the chorus has intermittently offered travel opportunities: Students have performed in Washington, D.C., New York, England, Italy, Paris, and Quebec; at Carnegie and Ozawa halls; and at Deval Patrick’s inauguration in Boston. They’ve appeared on concert programs with the Berkshire Choral Festival, Berkshire Opera Company, several current and former Metropolitan Opera soloists, the Berkshire Batteria—and even James Taylor. Now in her third year of directorship, Bickford is getting ready to reintroduce traveling performances, including a planned trip to Canterbury Cathedral in England, where BCC’s senior and Coda choristers will sing alongside some of the best children’s choruses in the world.
BCC alumna and current board member Alice Maggio summarizes: “It’s a physical experience; all these endorphins are released. It feels good to sing. And it’s social—you’re practicing with all your friends, and they’ll cover for you if you miss a note. And it develops an amazing amount of confidence.”
Don’t miss the BCC 25th Anniversary Concert at 4 p.m. on June 12 at the First Congregational Church, 25 Park Place, Lee.