Manchester Chorale is a welcoming place to make music

By Michael J. Dunne
For the Journal Inquirer
November 29, 2004

Victor Agosto loves to sing in choruses. He’s been doing it most of his life, and for the last 28 years he’s been doing it in the tenor section of the Manchester Symphony Orchestra and Chorus (MSOC). His amateur singing career began in his native Puerto Rico in a Baptist Church choir, then on to the University of Puerto Rico and then to the mainland, where he’s been singing ever since.

Why does he do it — what keeps him coming back year after year? “I enjoy singing, learning new vocal techniques, and I’ve made many friends in the chorale,” says Agosto. “It’s also a therapy for me from the daily school routine. It makes me feel relaxed and with energy to go back to work on Tuesdays.” (The chorus rehearses on Monday evenings.)

Linda Cromwell, a soprano with the MSOC, says, “Singing is a huge part of who I am as a person. It has helped through some tough times and some challenging times. It helps me feel alive.” Diana Belbruno (soprano) says, “When my kids were younger, it was something I could do just for me. I look forward to those Monday nights.” Bill Reid (bass) adds that he loves it “when a group of diverse people with varying levels of musical knowledge, vocal training and ability reach a point where the sum of the whole is greater than any one, two or three.”

Agosto, Cromwell, Belbruno, and Reid are typical of the more than 28 million adults and children who are regularly performing in choral groups in the U.S., according to a recent survey by Chorus America, a nationwide association of choruses. The recently completed study, “America’s Performing Art,” found that one or more adults in 15 percent of American households performed in at least one chorus in the past year. The 250,000 choruses in the U.S. make it America’s leading art form.

With these thoughts in mind I met recently with Kevin Mack, the Manchester Chorale’s new artistic director, who will be conducting the orchestra and chorus in its Friday, Dec. 3, (Enfield) and Saturday,Dec. 4, (Manchester) performances. We talked about how the MSOC
is currently welcoming singers into its ranks, what the ensemble’s needs are, and how he works with new arrivals.

Kevin Mack
Manchester Chorale Artistic Director Kevin Mack

Q. What do you think it is that brings so many people to choral singing?

A. A lot of reasons, an important one of which is social. Many people join choruses to meet new people for friendship — and maybe even romantic involvement! It’s a good antidote to our human tendency to stay at home and “cocoon.” There’s a spiritual reason, too, whether or not a particular piece of music is religious. To be enveloped with ideas from another time, another country, ideas that we can relate to and that become part of our spiritual foundation: that’s a great experience. Then, if the music is religious, it can add a new perspective to our views about different religious traditions.

Coming together in a post-9/11 sense that celebrates our culture and the goodness therein is really important and comforting to many people. Also, choristers talk about the educational aspect of choral singing as a musical analog to Country Walkers — an adventure in learning for people of all ages!

Finally, and probably most important, there is no music-making experience like singing. You’re using an instrument you grew up with and are familiar with, and using it with others to make beautiful music; that’s a beautiful, personal experience.

People come to the MSOC for all these reasons. An important point here is that the MSOC is an amateur group, and people come from all sorts of backgrounds, with differing levels of experience, and they’re all welcome. When new or inexperienced singers come to choral singing in a group such as the MSOC, they are truly welcomed, not looked down upon. Right now MSOC is welcoming singers in all the voice ranges — especially tenors and basses, and from all age groups.

Q. When someone expresses an interest in coming to sing with the MSOC, what qualities do you look for?

A. First and foremost, commitment and enthusiasm! Those qualities can make up for a lot that might be lacking in musical experience. The ability to carry a tune is basic, but in the MSOC the new singer doesn’t have to be able to read music; he or she just needs to be able to listen well and work on making the music his or her own. Vitality and enthusiasm go a long way in a musical chorus!

Q. So here’s a person who hasn’t been singing for quite a while, and wants to get back to what he or she remembers as an enjoyable, satisfying activity. When the contact is made with the MSOC is he or she going to hear the dreaded word “audition?”

A. Well, I don’t use that dreaded word. I do, of course, meet with every new person for vocal placement, and here’s what happens: We get together to chat about singing and music, and about commitment and enthusiasm. Then I ask the person to just sing a couple of scales, along with the piano, so I can hear his or her voice. We then sing a little written music to get an idea how the person handles pitches and rhythms, and finally I have the person sing along with the piano so I can hear where his or her high and low ranges are.

That’s generally what I do in this “getting to know you” meeting; it takes about six or seven minutes. But it’s not an “audition,” in the sense of a test that the singer will either pass or fail. It’s a way for me to see how best to place the singer in the ensemble,where his or her talents lie, and what kind of music he or she will be particularly strong in.

Q. Well, you yourself are a very enthusiastic, gentle, and “nice” person, so I’m sure a meeting with you would not be stressful. You’ve said that singers come to the MSOC from a broad range of experiences and expertise. What kinds of issues might a singer bring to the group that you can work with, as against problems that you can’t?

A. Along with that commitment and enthusiasm I’ve mentioned, the singer really needs to want to be part of a blended group. If an individual wants his or her voice to stand out and be obvious to listeners as if it’s a solo performance, that’s going to be a problem, because the MSOC is a place where people blend their voices into a whole that’s bigger than the sum of its parts. But other issues can usually be worked with in the group, such as chronic flatness, diction, language, things like that. Physical disabilities can always be worked with in the group. For example, I’ve worked with people who are blind, who often make marvelous choral singers. People with mental disabilities often bring a focus and enthusiasm to chorales that make them wonderful singers. Age in itself, of course, is not a problem.

Q. As a chorister who’s old enough to remember FDR, I thank you for that last remark. You’ve expressed a strong commitment to continuing the MSOC’s reputation as a welcoming place where people can come and share the music-making experience with others. As the MSOC chorale’s new musical director, what’s your vision for its future in the community at large?

A. It’s nice to think of having a group east of the river that is an interesting alternative to the major metropolitan choruses in the Hartford metropolitan area; a slightly smaller group that is nimble, that would ideally be the equal of the majors in musicality, that would have good blend and sound filled with character.

I think there’s a golden opportunity in Manchester, if the listeners will support it, to be a little more adventurous with repertoire. The major metropolitan organizations with their high operating budgets have some obligation to continue bringing the traditional masterworks to the people; the beautiful regional orchestras and choruses often have more latitude with their repertoire.

Many who have become familiar with the “top 200 classics” are looking for alternatives, such as offerings by composers who lived in their own areas. I think a really nice piece to perform would be Connecticut composer Charles Ives’s “The Celestial Country.” I did that in Hartford about 20 years ago, and I think it’d be welcomed again.

The choice of the Charpentier Mass for our December concert is an example; lots of people have never heard of it, but it’s a beautiful part of the “Christmas Midnight Mass” tradition.

The selections for the Manchester Symphony Orchestra and Chorale’s upcoming concerts include Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s “Messe de Minuit pour Noel.” In this “Midnight Mass for Christmas,” the composer added 11 popular French Christmas carols of his time to
the usual parts of the Mass.

This blend of sacred music and popular carols projects a powerful metaphor for the earthly and heavenly Christmas. The other concert selection will be excerpts from George Frederick Handel’s “Messiah,” including the widely known and loved “Halleluia Chorus.”

The performances will be on Friday, Dec. 3, at 7:30 p.m., at JFK Middle School, 155 Raffia Road, Enfield, and on Saturday, Dec. 4 at 7:30 p.m., at Trinity Covenant Church, 302 Hackmatack St., Manchester.

Tickets at the door are $13 for adults and $10 for seniors and student. Children under 18 will be admitted for free.

For more information including directions, call (860) 528-0906 or visit the Web site:

The Manchester Chorale will also perform at the Governor’s Annual Holiday Open House on Sunday, Dec. 5, from 1 to 2 p.m. at the Governor’s Mansion on Prospect Avenue in West Hartford.