With Singers Age 16 to 81, Berkshire Lyric Chorus Makes Music And Builds Community

Apr 25, 2019

About 70 singers greeted each other on a recent Monday night as they settled into their seats at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. A tall, bearded man stood before them next to a piano.

"Can we do it as a round right away?" Jack Brown, the artistic director of Berkshire Lyric, asked the crowd of basses and tenors, altos and sopranos. "Sure we can! OK. Ready, go."

Without hesitation, the chorus burst forth with a vocal exercise. 

"One, one two one, one two three two one," they sang.

"Music is something that really connects with — at the very deepest level — what it means to be a human being," Brown told NEPR.

Berkshire Lyric consists of four choruses: The Blafield Children's Chorus, with singers aged six to 14; Melodious Accord, an ensemble of teenage girls; Ubi Caritas, an a capella chorus of high school and college students; and the Berkshire Lyric Chorus, a multigenerational choir.

Older voices blend easily with younger ones, bringing together a community of music lovers from across the decades. 

"I’m one of the older people," said Lee Bellaver, from Lee. "I’m 80. I will be 80 in July."

On the other end of the age spectrum: Leah Najimy, 16, from Savoy.

"A lot of the old people, they’re —" Najimy stopped to correct herself. "The older people are very, very nice, and they're fun to be around."

About a fifth of the singers are 25 years old or younger. An equal number are in their 50s to mid 60s, like David Pott, 58, a tenor from Great Barrington.

"I love having younger people. It makes a difference in the sound, and certainly the vitality and enthusiasm. It's not all gray hair like mine," Pott said with a laugh. "It feels like you're part of making something beautiful with a whole bunch of people together. And the end result is a singular expression of beauty."

The singers come from as far away as the Vermont and Connecticut borders, and across the line in New York. 

Brown said most community choruses don’t audition, but he holds what he calls a "vocal interview."

"I have to make sure that people can sing in tune. I don't have a remedial thing for that," he said. "And if somebody has vocal trouble singing a scale, this is probably not the right chorus for them. They wouldn't be that happy."

Andy Plumer is one of the founding members of the chorus, which began in 1963. He started when he was  in his mid-20s.

"I’m 80 years old, but I still sing tolerably, I guess," he said with a laugh.

Plumer sings with his wife, Meg. Husbands and wives, aunts and uncles, parents and children sing together.

Campbell Bridges, 50, from Lenox, first sang as a teen with his dad.

"I would tag along," Bridges said. "My dad would bring me to do my homework, and [I'd] sit in the back. And then I started singing with them. And so when we moved back to the area with my kids, it was sort of natural. It was like coming home."

The Berkshire Lyric Chorus in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, is multigenerational.
Credit Nancy Eve Cohen / NEPR

The Berkshire Lyric Chorus rehearses every week for its upcoming concert at Tanglewood.
Credit Nancy Eve Cohen / NEPR

Brown takes a kind of "tough love" approach to conducting. 

"One of my favorite things that I tell the choir after we're really digging into this is, 'There's no fun like work!'" he said.

Ronnie Cunningham from Housatonic said singing with the chorus is like combining hard work with a vacation.

"We learn so much from Jack, and he's very encouraging, and in a gentle manner," Cunningham said.

The chorus sings mostly classical music, including the works of Haydn, Mozart, Schubert and Lauridsen. They were preparing for their big concert, held in early June, in Seiji Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood.

"The concerts we do at Ozawa Hall are probably the youngest classical audiences they get all year," Brown said. "And they're certainly the most local."

Brown said their audience includes people who live in the Berkshires, but who have never been to Tanglewood.

Cecilia Redpath, 17, is a soprano from Great Barrington and sings with her sister, mother and grandmother. She said she can hear all of the singers' voices when they perform in Ozawa Hall.

"It's so cool to hear how the sound works in the room," Redpath said. "It seems much bigger and more powerful, and you feel like you’re reaching more people."

Brown said when people sing together, their bodies are like instruments.

"I'm physically resonating as a singer in a room with other people and we're resonating together, hopefully in tune," he said. 

The physicality is something Lee Bellaver experiences.

"When it comes together, when the pitches [and] the sound is all correct, it's such a fantastic sound in my head and in my body," she said. "And it makes my soul happy."

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