The Civic Chorale celebrates 40th anniversary
By Leslie Grace | A! Magazine for the Arts | November 26, 2013Many songs revolve around love – "All You Need Is Love," "Love Makes the World Go Round," and "Give Me Love, Give Me Peace on Earth," to name a few. David Hendricksen, director of The Civic Chorale, also blends song and love in the joy he takes in his role and in the role he sees music and the arts having in society.
"Choral music has always been my first love," Hendricksen says. "Although I knew little about what was then called The Johnson City Civic Chorale, I looked forward to the possibility of working at a high level of excellence with a group of enthusiastic, auditioned singers. Though I had initially moved to Tennessee in 1988 as a music professor at Tusculum College, my work there had evolved into academic administration to the point that I was doing almost no music-related work there at all.
"Since January of 1998, the Chorale's Thursday night rehearsals have been a highlight of my week, and indeed my life."
Hendricksen was named director of the chorale in January 1998. "I learned in fall 1997 that the board of the chorale was conducting a search for an individual to fill the position, since Douglas Grove-DeJarnett was stepping down from conducting the group in order to have more time for his family and increasing responsibilities in his position at Munsey Memorial United Methodist Church. I submitted my application, was interviewed and was delighted to be accepted for the position."
The name of the group is one of several things that have changed during Hendricksen's tenure. The name was changed to recognize that although the chorale started in Johnson City, Tenn., the members of the group are drawn from a wide area: Abingdon, Va.; Kingsport, Tenn.; Bristol, Va./Tenn.; Erwin, Tenn.; Flag Pond, Tenn.; Greeneville, Tenn.; and other locations.
The group also has grown. "The first concert I conducted in 1998 had 28 singers," Hendricksen says. "We now have a roster of about 60 singers. Generally 40 to 45 of those 60 are involved in any given concert. Folks periodically sit out a concert due to work schedules, health issues, family situations, etc. Several members are actively involved in theatrical productions, alternating their time between shows and concerts with the chorale."
The music has evolved as well. "We continue to perform a broad range of choral music across many centuries, from Gregorian chants to recent compositions, from a cappella works to collaborations with other choirs and regional orchestras for major works such as Beethoven's "Ninth Symphony' or Orff's "Carmina Burana.'
"We have worked to be constantly increasing the musical skill level and artistic capability of the choir. On the most basic level, this means singing the right note at the right time. Beyond that, it includes working to have appropriate articulation, clear diction so words can be understood, and managing the transitions from loud to soft, whether sudden or gradual. We actually do relatively little teaching of individual parts in rehearsal. Rather, singers either have the skill to read the music, or take time on their own at home to be ready to sing their parts when we gather. Thus, our rehearsals are primarily about developing a cohesive ensemble sound, balance within and between sections, and shaping the musical interpretations of each selection."
As the chorale changes, so do some of the musical offerings. "Tradition is kept vital and living by constantly adding new repertoire, while continuing to perform masterworks from the past," Hendricksen says. "We have done many regional premieres of a wide range of repertoire. Some have been new pieces, and others were older works being done in this region for the first time (at least to the best of our knowledge – claiming a premiere is dangerous, since, except in cases where a composer tells us that we are doing a first performance, we don't really have a way of know whether anybody else previously performed the work or not).
"In spring 2010 we devoted an entire program to works by area composers. Some of these were world premieres; some were regional premieres and others were not premieres at all, but simply performances of worthy music by worthy composers.
"Not only is it good for the art of music in general to perform new works alongside the "tried and true,' but it is also good for the chorale, as an ensemble, to face the challenge of bringing unfamiliar music to life. And the same holds true for me as conductor. I continue to learn and grow by conducting music that I have not previously led. This is true whether it is brand new music, or existing works in the repertoire that I am leading for the first time myself."
One of the new pieces the chorale performed was commissioned in honor of Bob and Jane LaPella, founders of the choral, on the occasion of their retirement after 20 years at the helm. The piece was Kenton Coe's "Song of Creation." "We repeated that work at our 30th anniversary, and have scheduled it on our May 4, 2014, concert, the final program of our 40th anniversary season," Hendricksen says.
This season also marked the Oct. 13 performance of another commission, "The Voices" by Dale Warland. "This was actually a consortium commission. That is, several choruses from around the country funded the commission, as we could not have afforded it on our own," Hendricksen says. "This is a splendid addition to the choral repertoire for a cappella chorus divisi, with solo cello, beautifully played on our performance by Cherylonda Fitzgerald," he says. "We have programmed work from regional composers, even though we have not actively commissioned frequently. One composer told me that getting a second performance following the premiere is as much a challenge as securing the commission in the first place."
Hendricksen chooses the chorale's repertoire. His board of directors handles publicity, logistics, finances, budget planning and other details, but he makes the musical decisions.
"Choosing repertoire is probably the most difficult and most important work that I do, or any music director of any ensemble, for that matter," Hendricksen says. "We must look at a balance of styles, a balance of difficulty, taking into account the rehearsal time available and the audiences for whom we sing. With The Civic Chorale, I've consciously striven to gradually raise the bar of the sophistication of the repertoire we sing. Sometimes I get it right, and sometimes I don't. For example, a few years ago I programmed selections – any one of which we could certainly perform, but together they were more challenging than we had rehearsal time for – so I ended up dropping a few pieces from the concert program in order that the remaining pieces could be sung as well as possible.
"Of course, one can err in the other direction as well. If the mix of the music is insufficiently challenging, human nature will lead singers to get bored, and the capabilities of the ensemble as a whole will atrophy. As in so many other aspects of life, the proper balance is both necessary and ever elusive."
While the chorale has two able accompanists, Lisa Adkins Runner on piano and David Runner on organ, it often sings with larger groups.
The Civic Chorale has performed with Symphony of the Mountains, The Johnson City Symphony Orchestra, the Milligan College Orchestra, The Pro Musica Chamber Orchestra and the East Tennessee Children's Choir.
"Sometimes, we initiate the project; other times we will be invited by one of the orchestras to participate in a project. A case in point is the performance next March of Carl Orff's popular "Carmina Burana' with Symphony of the Mountains. This piece requires a very large chorus, so in addition to the orchestra's own chorus, Voices of the Mountains, several regional college choirs and The Civic Chorale are coming together for the performance. This is a win-win for everybody. It is an exciting work that singers enjoy singing and audiences enjoy hearing. But none of the groups could afford to hire the size orchestra required. And even if we could, we would then be drowned out. Only by everybody coming together can such a work be performed in our region."
Hendricksen sees that "coming together" is not only a necessary part of performing "Carmina Burana," but it is also as a necessary part of music and society as a whole.
"Alexis deTocqueville, in his monumental "Democracy in America' wrote of the important role that various civic organizations have in knitting a society together. Within the chorale, we have a broad range of political opinions, theological convictions and educational backgrounds. We range from singers still in high school to singers who have been active for several decades – and yet across all this diversity we come together for something that is bigger than any one of us: the music. As we work together to make music to the best of our ability, in the process we also build relationships with folks we might not otherwise have met. A democratic society can work only when people of varying persuasions work together for the common good. What we do in the choir is a microcosm of what we need to do in the larger society.
"There are times in rehearsals when for a moment a particular sonority is just right, and we can all hear it, and you can see it on people's faces. And we realize that we all need each other to make that happen. And then when we perform in public, we share music in which we have invested our time and energy. Then the folks in the audience are hearing it together. It is a very different experience than listening to a great recording in the privacy of one's home. The sounds are ephemeral – they last only a moment, and then survive only in our memories of the experience.
"Naturally, each person in the audience may have different reactions to various parts of the concert program, but just as the chorale has worked together to produce the sound, the audience works together in sharing the experience of attentive listening, of maintaining quiet so that others can hear. The act of being an audience is itself a civic act, even if perhaps less intense than the process of rehearsing and performing the music.
"There is no substitute for live performance of music (and live theatre as well, for that matter), and I am grateful for the privilege of leading a group which is one part of the larger musical culture of our region. I love the music. I love working together with people to make the music. And philosophically, I am committed to the role an arts organization such as ours plays in the larger society."
— The Civic Chorale Personnel