Bands playing in parking lots for masked drive-in fans. Local musicians performing online for tips via Venmo. Iconic rock groups reuniting on social media to the delight of longtime devotees. The music scene of 2020 sure doesn’t look like anything we’ve seen before. The Connecticut choral world is no different.
“We were one week away from presenting our March concert,” says Paul Mueller, music director and conductor of the Greenwich Choral Society, about the day everything changed. “The Tuesday before, we were to perform in collaboration with Greenwich High School at nine o’clock. Everything looked like it was a go; then at 11:30, they shut down the school.”
For the New Haven Chorale, the pandemic prompted the cancellation of its 70th anniversary concert which was to take place in early May. The Hartford Chorale, too, was forced to go dark for the spring concert season. Its leadership quickly recognized the magnitude of what was happening. “A great deal of discussion and debate took place when we began to realize that our 2020-2021 season was beginning to disappear,” says Richard Coffey, Hartford Chorale’s music director. “We needed to find a way to support our mission by providing something educational, artistic and inspiring for our membership, our supporters, and fans of choral music.”
The Hartford Chorale’s Board of Governors looked into the technology they had available, and the ways it could be utilized. Their artistic committee began formulating ideas for members-only and public listening events as well as interactive offerings. Likewise, the New Haven Chorale put together a series of online music classes for anyone interested, and continued their usual Monday night rehearsals virtually.
“Zoom is not designed for people to sing together; it doesn’t work,” says Mueller, describing how his Greenwich group uses the platform. “Instead, we listen to music together, we stretch, we do wonderful meditative breathing exercise; we do it to stay connected.”
Some chorale group members say the virtual environment has had the unexpected silver lining of not only keeping them connected to one another, but also drawing in new participants, or those who may have left the group previously but want to be involved again. “We’ve basically opened the doors to anyone who wants to join us virtually,” says Ed Bolkovac, New Haven Chorale’s music director. “We’ve also had members who moved away, rejoin. We have three or four members every week joining us from California, somebody from Minnesota and a couple from Massachusetts.”
As the pandemic stretched into summer, Connecticut’s choral groups began getting even more creative. One inspiration was Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choir 6: Sing Gently. Whitacre, a composer and conductor who pioneered the virtual choir concept, has grown his virtual concerts from hundreds to thousands of singers over the last 11 years. In response to the global shutdown, Whitacre’s spring 2020 virtual choir project was his largest, involving 40,000 singers from 145 countries.
While not possessing the technology Whitacre has at his fingertips, the Hartford Chorale did have one trick up its sleeve: a staffer who understood how to utilize the technology they had, and who was ready to jump into the project. “We first chose Handel’s Messiah, and I selected specific parts of it so that the music would be familiar. The technology would be challenging enough,” says Jack Pott, assistant music director and media coordinator. “We put the opportunity out there, and 70 chorale members wanted in — it was wonderful!”
Mueller says the response in Greenwich was just as enthusiastic, with 72 members submitting videos. The Hartford singers also willingly dove into what was a completely new world.
Eventually, as hundreds of singers across the state got past the learning curve of recording themselves on their own, and after hundreds of videos were blended through hours and hours — and hours — of editing, the results were revealed to be nothing less than magnificent. Music lovers anywhere on the globe can now enjoy the pure joy of choral performances, produced right here in Connecticut.
All three choral groups have holiday-themed virtual performances coming up in December.
Greenwich Choral Society: A series of performances for Hannukah and Christmas, including Chanukah Candle Blessings, a traditional Ashkenazic melody, Handel’s See the Conqu’ring Hero Comes!, from the oratorio of Judas Maccabaeus, and Franz Grüber’s Silent Night, will be posted to its website in December. gcs-ct.org
New Haven Chorale: A virtual holiday concert with chamber orchestra accompaniment, organ performances, solos by a professional soprano, and sing-along Christmas carols will be posted on the group’s YouTube channel on Dec. 18. newhavenchorale.org
Hartford Chorale: A performance of Handel’s Messiah will be posted to the group’s website in December. hartfordchorale.org