Innovative programming and superb performances since 1949
CpM Through the Decades
Photo by Gary Wolf
For more than 70 years, Chorus Pro Musica has established itself as one of Boston’s premiere choruses thanks to its talented chorus directors and its more than 1000 singers who have rehearsed, performed, and enjoyed making music together over the decades.
Chorus member Peter Pulsifer’s detailed history, from which these headlines are drawn, can be read here.
The choir’s opening movement
Alfred Nash (Bud) Patterson, an organist and choir director in Cambridge, founded the Polyphonic Choir, a group of about 40 voices to resemble the New York chorus of the choral legend Robert Shaw who had been a teacher of Bud’s. The choir aimed to raise the standard of amateur choirs and appropriately opened with Boston’s first performance of Aaron Copland’s In the Beginning. The chorus went on to sing further premieres including the New England premier of Mozart’s Mass in C minor and with an audience of over 2000 established itself as a major choral presence in Boston becoming Chorus Pro Musica as it moved to Boston in 1949.
Becoming a premiere choral force
A series of premieres early in the 1950s brought the chorus to the attention of Boston Symphony Orchestra’s conductor Serge Koussevitsky, who said that CpM was “the best chorus I’ve ever heard”. In 1959, the chorus made its first appearance in New York’s Carnegie Hall with the BSO, conducted by Robert Shaw. In 1961, under Charles Munch, CpM sang the premiere of Francis Poulenc’s Gloria. Until 1970, when the Tanglewood Festival Chorus was formed, CpM was the BSO’s chorus of choice.
A decade of recording successes
Under BSO Director Erich Leinsdorf, CpM made four recordings for the RCA label, two of which received Grammy nominations. In 1963, the chorus performed the U.S. premiere of Britten’s War Requiem with Leinsdorf at Tanglewood, a monumental performance recorded by WGBH and now available on DVD. Two summers later, CpM joined the BSO in the first recording of a Wagner opera in the U.S., recording Lohengrin at Symphony Hall following a performance at Tanglewood.
The passing of the baton
As CpM continued its focus on premieres including those of local composer Daniel Pinkham, it also added rarely performed music to its repertoire, including introducing Boston to renaissance composers like Monteverdi, Vivaldi and Gabrieli. It is hard to imagine that the music of these significant composers had not previously been performed in Boston. Meanwhile, a former tenor from the chorus, Donald Palumbo accompanied recitalists at the final concert of the 1978-79 season after returning from studying in Vienna, a concert which turned out to be Bud Patterson’s last. Donald took up the role of music director shortly after.
A decade of new collaborations
CpM not only survived the death of its founder, it continued to grow under the baton of Donald Palumbo, who subsequently became the Chorus Master at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. The chorus however faced a new challenge. At the time, based on the success of CpM and interest from the public, many new choirs developed in Boston. The CpM chose to distinguish itself by focusing on its established strengths while also developing a new focus on 19th and 20th century music as well as regular a capella concerts featuring music from different countries. The chorus also developed new relationships with Benjamin Zander’s Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, performing some 13 concerts during the 1980s, with Emmanuel Music, and with the Pittsburgh Symphony during its summer residences under Michael Tilson Thomas.
CpM diversifies its music traditions
While Donald Palumbo’s enthusiasm for opera had led to the chorus’s first operatic performances, a new chorus director, Jeffrey Rink continued that involvement. Jeff’s conducting of the New England Philharmonic led to several collaborations that continue to this day under his successor. An annual tradition of the concert opera was developed with classics such as Carmen, Tosca, La Boheme, and Rigoletto supported by a newly formed non-profit, Concert Opera Boston. The chorus also performed the Yellow River Cantata in Mandarin, a Boston premiere of Antonio Estevez’s La Cantata Criolla drawing a huge Latinx audience, Rouben Gregoruan’s Armenian Divine Liturgy, and several interpretations of Eastern European composers.
Celebrating the new millennium by honoring the past and looking forward
A series of concerts featuring period instruments marked the early years of the century including works by Berlioz and Bach. Collaboration with the Boston Philharmonic saw performances of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony in Symphony and Carnegie Halls. CpM premiered its first commissioned work (commissioned by Jeff prior to his CpM role) based on the autobiographical writings of Boston area Anne Sexton. The concert of “Requiem for our Time was attended by the composer and friends of Ms Sexton and recorded, receiving a Pulitzer nomination. The chorus once again transitioned leaders after a year-long search and the chorus was joined by its first woman Director, Betsy Burleigh.
A decade of new commissions and chorus firsts
Boston premieres continued with Kodaly’s Laudes Organi featuring the magnificent Old South Church’s newly restored organ, and a collaboration with the Zamir Chorale premiering the first direct commission by the chorus, Andrew Rindfleisch’s Kaddish Prayer. Additional commissioning began a lasting partnership with Abbie Betinis that continued through the decade as well as Peter Child’s Meditations on a Lamb. Betsy, now also the conductor of the Providence Singers led the choruses in two sell out concerts in Boston and Providence featuring Britten’s War Requiem with the New England Philharmonic. Another first was the performance of Haydn’s Creation with a backdrop of graphic projections aimed at attracting younger audiences.
Jamie Kirsch joined the chorus as Director in 2013 taking on a concert previously prepared by Betsy but delayed by the Boston marathon bombings. Under Jamie’s direction, seasons combined a major classical work with significant innovations including James Whitbourne’s oratorio Annelies based on the diary of Anne Frank and Carol Barnett’s The World Beloved: A Bluegrass Mass blended traditional mass with folk-style ballads accompanied by fiddle, Mandolin, banjo, guitar and bass. New commissions continued, including works by Andy Vores one of which included looping techniques, and James Kallembach’s multi-media oratorio based on the life of naturalist John James Audubon. Programs often contain works outside the western tradition and choral settings of popular songs as well as a new interest in concert musical theater.
Challenges for the new decade
The new decade started with a new collaboration with the Metropolitan Chorale. The chorus had also started working on an ambitious performance of Julia Wolfe’s Pulitzer Prize winning Anthracite Fields featuring Bang on a Can All-Stars about Pennsylvania miners but was prevented from performing due to the closing of music venues. Undeterred by the COVID-19 pandemic, Jamie continues to innovate through remote rehearsals and performances, the starting of a driveway choir so singers can sing together safely from their cars, and a focus on building the choir into an inclusive 21st century organization.