Bay Area Choral Festival Invites Everyone to Participate
By Lou Fancher
Other than in the minds of chipmakers in Silicon Valley, the idea of making something smaller in order to better fit into a larger whole seems like a decidedly un-American idea.
From Big Box stores and supersize meals to the get-wealthy American Dream to politicians and entrepreneurs promising big, bigger, biggest changes to make our country great, contemporary society’s “song lyrics” are mostly large scale.
So the 80 members of San Francisco Bach Choir are counterculture, maybe even radical upstarts, you could say. Subsuming ego, embracing no-divas ground rules, practicing novel concepts like standing shoulder-to-shoulder and vocalizing as equals with a stranger who may look, pray, eat, dress, smell, or think differently — these clever folks have stumbled or intentionally arrived upon an uncommon truth. Singing as an anonymous, tiny part of an all-volunteer community choir can make a person feel ... big.
And relishing that tiny-big feeling — even upstarts, after all, are human — the singers like nothing better than to freely share it. Which is why the second “Many Voices, One Art: A Bay Area Choral Festival” March 4 at Calvary Presbyterian Church is a terrific gig. The choir last year welcomed over 200 people who braved “rain that was traveling sideways in the wind” to attend the six-hour, free event, according to Executive Director Martha Westland. In 2017, two weeks prior to the event, already 225 people had registered and the 350-person cap was looking like it might be reached.
The festival begins and ends with open group sing-alongs. In between, an ambitious schedule packs in a lunch break and a dozen one-hour sessions led by experts and professional musicians that offer a wealth of opportunities to learn, sing and move. There are workshops on Broadway music styles, barbershop harmony, Latin American songs, Gregorian chants, spirituals, Jewish folk music, vocal fundamentals, and more. Opportunities to sample Alexander technique, a practice that improves awareness of physical patterns that interfere with breathing and movement, and a body-music workshop that has people playing “the oldest instrument on the planet, the human body,” satisfy nonsitters in the crowd.
“The warmup at the start gets people comfortable,” says Westland, “but they haven’t yet had a chance to sing together in workshops, to eat lunch together.” The group sing at the end of the day, she recalls from last year, was incredible. “At the end, after having a blast all day, it was so warm. People said it was a gift to them. They left knowing people, knowing music, and knowing about choirs they’d never known before.”
Westland joined the 81-year-old choir as managing director in 2011. Westland says that Artistic DirectorMagen Solomon, who came onboard in 2014, has pushed the choir to improve and has expanded the repertoire beyond the primary focus on the choral works of Bach.
“Running an organization that’s primarily volunteer is different than a professional choir,” says Westland. “The people who are singing are doing it because they love it passionately. They’ve made a conscious choice to join a demanding choir. We’re expected to show up and learn quickly. People are inspired by Magen, by the music, by the challenge.”
Even so, determining the special interests and skill sets of each member is essential for long-term motivation. “You match their talents to what needs to be done. They want to contribute something of themselves to the organization. We need it all. From stuffing envelopes to things that are more meaty.”
Because the choir performs with the 30-member Jubilate Orchestra, the availability of appropriately sized performance venues determines the number of performances they produce. The costs associated with the festival are largely underwritten by a few of the choir members. Presenters, Westland says, receive only a minimal stipend and several workshop leaders volunteer their time.
Rehearsals in preparation for the choir’s May concert are well in progress. Mozart’s Vespers (de Confessore), K.339, Westland says, requires singing cleanly, bringing clarity by emphasizing certain lines, and articulating the text explicitly, but simply. The second work on the program, Beethoven’s Mass in C Major, is representative of the composer’s earlier work. “It’s more symphonic, a less romantic work,” she says. “We’re paying attention to structure, idiomatic line use, classical balance.”
And all along, there’s the strength of a choral voice, far exceeding that of even the most powerful individual voice. “There’s something wonderful about being in a group and making a sound that no single person can make,” Westland agrees. “My favorite part of rehearsal is the mixup at the end. We scatter and stand next to someone who sings a different part. You have to hold your own part. You get to meet everyone in the choir. It’s a cohesive group feeling. That’s not unique to the Bach choir — it’s an underlying commonality in singing.”