Published by Chorus Pro Musica in a pamphlet commemorating its 50th anniversary.
This reprint for private use only.
These days it’s tough to imagine the Boston choral scene in the mid-1940’s. There was nothing like today’s rich proliferation of choruses, large and small, each trying to carve out its niche. Apart from church choirs, there were, essentially, the Handel & Haydn Society and the Cecilia Society. In their nineteenth-century heyday, each organization had been an important musical force in the city, premiering new works and dusting off seldom heard classics. But they had specialized in oratorios, and no one was writing oratorios much anymore. For much of the first half of the twentieth century, H&H and Cecilia were content to serve up strictly traditional fare.
In 1948 Alfred Nash Patterson (just about everyone called him Bud) was organist and choir director of Christ Church in Cambridge. “When I was at Christ Church,” Bud told me 20 years ago, “we had to have an evening choir, but to get people to come out to an evening choir regularly was a bit of a chore. So we established the practice of making it a semi concert choir, so that the whole group would do perhaps three concerts a year during the evening services. That amounted to perhaps from 40 to 50 voices; when we were not concertizing, perhaps 20 of them would come in and sing the service, and the rest of them would go home.”
This group of singers was called the Polyphonic Choir, and a letter from Mr. Patterson to his singers indicates his ambitions for the choir: “’Twould seem that with diligence and zeal we may supply Boston and the hinterland with a choral group emulating, fashioned in the likeness of, and daily increasing with spirit of the Collegiate Chorale in New York.” The Collegiate Chorale was the professional chorus created by Robert Shaw, who had been one of Bud’s teachers at Tanglewood. Before Shaw, the standards of choral singing in the United States had been almost entirely the standards of amateurs. Shaw was the first to start to change all that, and Bud Patterson followed close behind. “Until recently,” Bud continued, “choral music has suffered many artistically impure practices, and the goal of perfection is a lot harder to attain than it is for an instrumental group in regard to pitch, rhythm, ensemble, tone, etc. But the ideal in choral singing is a finer and more musical mode of expression than any other field of music. But there is no reason to get excited about just another chorus.” (January 22, 1948)
The Polyphonic Choir got off to a good start, giving first Boston performances of Aaron Copland’s In the Beginning and Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols, and the American premiere of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Benedicite. “Our policy,” Bud said, “was to do unusual things in order to attract those musicians who were challenged by and capable of taking on new things and were tired of the old things. I don’t say that we started a renaissance of choral music, but the time was ripe, I guess, and we happened to hit the right kind of policy.”
What really put Alfred Nash Patterson and his singers on the map was the Mozart Mass in C minor, given on March 21, 1949.
“When we did the Mozart at Trinity Church,” Bud told me, “it was the first time it had been done in New England. They told us they can seat 1400 at Trinity. They also told us that we had 2200 people there, standing all over the place, sitting along the aisles, leaning against the ends of the pews with their heads in one direction and their feet in another.
“Well, Rudolph Elie, who was the Herald critic at the time, came in late and, knowing the church, he came in through the side door into the chancel. That meant he was behind the altos. So my wife, recognizing him, said, ‘Here, Mr. Elie, why don’t you use my seat? I won’t be sitting down most of the time.’ Whereupon he did.
“His review was quite enthusiastic, but he did say that he couldn’t possibly judge the balance or diction or impact out in front because during the performance he ‘was involved with the contraltos behind the organ.’ The New Yorker picked this up in one of their little footnote filler things and added, ‘A fine performance you gave, Mr Elie!’”
Needless to say, the concert was an immense success — as was the soprano soloist, a little-known local singer named Phyllis Curtin.
Bud waxed philosophical in a 1950 letter to new members: “I have an idea that people join choruses to experience self expression and also the one-ness of a number of humans all and together looking for the highest expression of a big thought in music. The best that most of us can do is to latch on to the big thought that someone else has conceived and matured, and to try to digest it. …Maybe we can never go all the way with a man like Bach, but we can go further with him than we could ever go on our own. And even to exceed the limit of our normal dullness is a thing worth singing for.”
Mr. Patterson left Christ Church to become choirmaster at the Church of the Advent in Boston, and he took some of his singers with him. Unfortunately, Christ Church wanted to keep the name “Polyphonic Choir,” and in September of 1949 the members of the Polyphonic Choir-that-was voted on a new name. From such choices as the Panchoral, the Acrophonic Choir, the Surette Choir, the Causa Musica Chorus and the Canto Bene, they finally settled upon Chorus pro Musica.
Chorus pro Musica was off and running. In 1950 it sang the American premiere of Marcel Dupré’s De Profundis and the Boston premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s Mass. And … another letter: “We’re going to sing with this Koussevitzky chap. I’ve been to Tanglewood three times this summer. The first time Koussy saw me and asked me to do this French work about some Innocent Saints. Next time I followed it up, after going through the score he gave me; in the meantime someone had told him that I was conducting another chorus [the Cecilia Society] and he got the idea that this was the chorus I meant. So he said, ‘Poot my bawyyyyy, vee hef noh chchawrus.’ But by the next time at Tanglewood some of the BSO men and I were able to switch him back to the Chorus pro Musica, and we’re in.” (August 7, 1950)
By this time, Serge Koussevitzky had retired as Music Director of the Boston Symphony, but on December 2 and 3, 1950, he returned to guest-conduct the Sibelius Symphony #2 and the American premiere of a work by a little-known French composer, Henri Barraud: La Mystère des Saints Innocents. The work has not made its way into the repertoire, but it did provide Chorus pro Musica with its first opportunity to sing with the BSO.
Afterwards, Koussevitzky said that CpM was “the best chorus I’ve ever heard.” And Cecil Smith, writing for Musical America, echoed his words: “The chorus was one of the best, both musically and tonally, I have ever heard in a symphonic performance.”
For one reason or another, CpM did not sing again with the BSO until 1957, and then it was to sing another work by Barraud: his Te Deum. And for the next thirteen seasons, until the creation of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus in 1970, Chorus pro Musica was the BSO’s chorus of choice. The Barraud performance under Charles Munch’s direction also included Beethoven’s Symphony #9, which the Chorus sang again under Munch’s direction in 1962 for his last concert as music director; then again under Erich Leinsdorf’s direction in 1969 for his last concert as music director; then again in 1970 under William Steinberg’s direction. There was also a very special performance of it in 1960, when CpM was invited to sing under the baton of Pierre Monteux in celebration of his 85th birthday. This concert did as much as anything to secure for Chorus pro Musica a preeminent position in Boston’s choral scene.
Only a few months after singing the Barraud and the Beethoven, Munch invited the Chorus back to perform another new work, Stravinsky’s Canticum Sacrum. The Chorus had four rehearsals in which to learn it, and for the first rehearsal there were no choral scores to give to the chorus. So Bud took the 12-tone row on which the composition was based and wrote it out on a blackboard in all its permutations: backwards and forwards and upside down. As Bud said, “Once you have the tone row, all you really have to worry about are the rhythmic elements. We were able to put that together in the next three rehearsals and put it on.”
In 1959, CpM performed for the first and only time under the direction of Bud’s old friend, guest conductor Robert Shaw. Shaw, who led the Chorus and the BSO in Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, was the chorus director for the Cleveland Orchestra at the time. At one point during the rehearsal, he turned to Bud and said, “You know, Patterson, I wish I had this tenor section out in Cleveland.” To which Bud replied, “You know, Shaw, sometimes I wish you did too.”
This program was also the first CpM performance in New York, when the BSO took it down to Carnegie Hall a few days afterwards. Carl Sigmon, reviewing the concert in the magazine Musical America, said, “The excellent Chorus pro Musica, from Boston, importantly contributed to the Stravinsky, summoning a wide gamut of emotions tempered by nearly perfect concision.”
CpM sang only one concert with Munch and the BSO in 1961, but it was an important one: the world premiere of Francis Poulenc’s Gloria. Bud sat up in the first balcony with the composer leaning over the stage during rehearsals. In Bud’s words, “Munch and Poulenc kept up a running fire of guttural French, comments about how things should go, that sort of thing. Our accompanist — this was a piano rehearsal — played through the thing, and after he’d gone through it perhaps twice, Poulenc came down onto the stage and sat at the piano. He had hands as big as baseball gloves and sounded like half a symphony orchestra, playing three times as many notes as there were in the score, and in a sense he conducted from the piano, just to show us how he wanted it to go. The conducting strength he had from the piano was amazing. We had a good time with him. Very genial fellow.”
The Poulenc Gloria was an instant success, and is in fact one of the very few works written in the last 50 years to become firmly entrenched in the choral-orchestral repertoire. Again the concert was taken to New York, and Cyrus Durgin reviewed it for Musical America: “The Chorus pro Musica, admirably prepared by Alfred Nash Patterson, and soprano Adele Addison participated in the Gloria — and the vocal work was most distinguished.”
Poulenc and the Chorus got along well together — it had already performed a number of his works, including the Boston premiere of his fiendishly difficult La Figure humaine for a cappella chorus — and the Chorus promptly elected him to its Advisory Board, which already included Munch, Monteux, Shaw, Leonard Bernstein, and Aaron Copland. At the time of his death in 1963, Poulenc was working on a piece for the Chorus which, alas, he never finished.
One of Erich Leinsdorf’s first concerts as music director in 1962 included the Stravinsky Symphony of Psalms. This was taken down to New York, where CpM became the first Boston chorus to sing at the new Philharmonic (now Avery Fisher) Hall.
Leinsdorf and Chorus pro Musica became very good friends during his tenure, and all four of the recordings CpM made for RCA in the 1960s and 1970s are under Leinsdorf’s direction.
In 1963 the BSO and Chorus pro Musica, along with the Columbus Boys’ Choir and soloists Phyllis Curtin, Nicholas DiVirgilio, and Tom Krause, joined forces under Leinsdorf’s baton to perform the American premiere of the War Requiem of Benjamin Britten. About 15,000 people showed up on a scorching hot day at Tanglewood to hear it.
In 1964 the Chorus sang two requiems with the Boston Symphony, both of them recorded for RCA, and both garnering Grammy nominations for the Chorus. The first, by Mozart, was performed at a memorial concert for John F. Kennedy at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross. A number of local choruses took part in this performance, and the service was broadcast on television. The second, by Verdi, was performed at Tanglewood that summer and later recorded with Birgit Nilsson, Lili Chookasian, Carlo Bergonzi and Ezio Flagello.
The following year was the year of Lohengrin. This was the biggest project in which the chorus had ever been called upon to participate. The chorus was increased in size from 120 to 180 voices, and rehearsals for the performance were carried on for months before the Tanglewood season began. The Wagner opera was given over a period of three days — an act a day — at Tanglewood; then everyone was flown back to Boston to record it.
“I remember some bass had made the same mistake twice during rehearsals, so Leinsdorf pointed in a general direction up into the bass section and said, ‘That blue shirt up there is probably our culprit.’ From that time on no one ever wore a blue shirt to rehearsals again. One morning we were warming up in a tent next to the stage before rehearsal. Someone hung up one blue shirt outside of the tent, with a sign saying FOR SALE. Leinsdorf walked by, looked at it — and reached into his pocket for some small change.”
Lohengrin was recorded uncut for the first time in history; it was also the first Wagner opera ever recorded in this country, and one of the few operas ever recorded by a major American orchestra. It proved to be one of the most expensive recordings in history before it was through.
“When we came back to Boston to make the records, there was a heat wave going on, and what they did to Symphony Hall was remarkable. They had installed fourteen air conditioners in there, and all the hot air was blown out into the corridors of Symphony Hall. In the hall itself it was very comfortable, but out in the corridors it reached about 120 degrees.”
The recording setup had the orchestra spread out where the seats usually are and the Chorus up on stage. Thus the Chorus was about 75 feet away from Leinsdorf and 30 feet behind the orchestra, and Leinsdorf constantly had to stop and do a section over again because of the time lag.
Somehow, after a total of 36 hours of recording, the thing was finished. Reviews were generally mixed; the only point of unanimity was the quality of the chorus. Warren E. Syer, for instance, reviewing the recording in High Fidelity, said, “Alfred Nash Patterson’s augmented Pro Musica Chorus, which had performed brilliantly in Act I, really caught the ear in Act III. I’ve never heard all the notes of the many double choruses so clearly delineated.” (BMG has recently reissued the Lohengrin recording on compact disc.)
In the late 1960s the Boston Symphony, having decided it would be financially wise to found its own chorus, offered the job to Chorus pro Musica. Bud and his Board of Trustees decided against it, wishing to retain their autonomy, and Chorus pro Musica’s final regular concert with the BSO was the Beethoven Ninth with Bernard Haitink in 1973 (although in 1975 it participated in a series of Youth Concerts under the direction of Harry Ellis Dickson).
In tandem with all these BSO concerts, of course, CpM was giving dozens of its own concerts, as well as being the city’s busiest chorus for hire. Versatility was always the name of the game, and the chorus, particularly in its early years when it was trying to spread the word, seldom turned down a reasonable opportunity. One of its early “extracurricular” performances, consisting of selections from the Mozart Mass in C minor, was at a variety show called “Lantern Lights of 1950,” a fund-raiser for the newly-created Boston Center for Adult Education, which also featured a pantomime and song by a 19-year-old local performer named Robert Morse. Much later on, the Chorus even tried its hand at television, appearing in an episode of the 1980s series Spenser: For Hire as a red-robed choir singing “Gimme That Old-Time Religion” behind the actor John Davidson, who played a shady evangelist.
A glance at the list of works the Chorus has performed over the past fifty years will show you a huge and impressive roster of contemporary works. Bud Patterson had participated in the first American performance of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes at Tanglewood, and over the course of the years CpM has performed not merely that work (Bud conducted an open-air concert performance with the Chorus in the 1950’s) but almost all of Britten’s major, and many of his minor, choral compositions. Poulenc and Stravinsky loomed large in the Chorus’s repertoire, as did the music of Charles Ives, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Hugo Distler and Leonard Bernstein, who shared a hometown (Lawrence, Mass.) with Bud Patterson.
Bernstein’s association with CpM goes back to 1953, when he conducted the Chorus in a recording of Aaron Copland’s In the Beginning. That recording remained unreleased until recently, when Sony issued it as part of the “Bernstein Century” series.
Premieres of one sort or another have always been a specialty of Chorus pro Musica. Especially in the early 1950s, there was to be a steady stream of concerts featuring music that was new to this part of the musical world. One concert in 1952 consisted entirely of New England premieres and one piece that was receiving its American premiere: Maurice Duruflé’s Requiem, which has since become a repertoire piece. Bud Patterson would repeat this kind of concert many times during his 30 years at the helm.
1951 saw the first of something else that would become a staple of CpM’s musical diet: world premieres. Three of them, in fact: Herbert Fromm composed a lovely Memorial Cantata, and two members of the Chorus had works premiered on one program — Klaus George Roy’s Canticle of the Sun and Ray Wilding-White’s Why Do the Heathen Rage? Many of Wilding-White’s choral works, including his beautiful Mass and his somber The Ship of Death, were premiered by Chorus pro Musica.
CpM gave the first performance of Walter Piston’s only major choral work, Psalm and Prayer of David. A long and happy association with Daniel Pinkham elicited a number of works for the Chorus, including his St. Mark Passion, commissioned by St. Mark’s School in Southborough. The winner of a new works competition sponsored by Bud and the Chorus in the early 1960s was an Ave Maria by a young Harvard student named John Harbison. (That piece, incidentally, was performed once and then promptly vanished from the files and memories of most people, including Harbison himself, until a single copy was discovered in the course of a CpM music library cleanup in the late 1980s.)
This emphasis on music of the twentieth century may be misleading. A large part of CpM’s reputation has also been based on reviving worthy music of the past. Here again, Boston’s present status as the Capital of Early Music makes it difficult to realize that until Chorus pro Musica came along, choral music of the lesser-known Renaissance and Baroque composers (i.e., anyone who wasn’t Bach or Handel) was left largely untouched except, occasionally, by church choirs. Those early performances may not have been historically informed, but CpM introduced local audiences to works by Monteverdi, Vivaldi (the Boston premiere of his Gloria), Schutz, Gabrieli, Buxtehude and Praetorius, to name just a few.
Please note that in addition to all these novelties, the chorus has always excelled at the standard repertoire as well: the regular requiems (Mozart, Brahms, Verdi, Faure), the Bach Passions and Mass in B minor, the Beethoven Missa Solemnis, even an occasional Messiah. There were even experiments, like the 1970 performance, a first in Boston, of Mahler’s vast Eighth Symphony (“Symphony of a Thousand”). Although using a drastically reduced orchestra, Bud wanted to show that the piece could in fact be performed using local singers. He proved his point — a decade later, Seiji Ozawa conducted the BSO and its own augmented Tanglewood Festival Chorus in performances and a recording of the piece. (CpM will have another opportunity to present the piece later this season with Benjamin Zander and the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra.)
The final program of CpM’s 1978–79 season—its thirtieth year—was half choral concert (Romantic works by Dvorak, Mussorgsky, Schumann, and others) and half vocal recital (songs by Brahms and Prokofiev sung by mezzo-soprano Jan Curtis). The choral part of the concert was led by Bud Patterson. The accompanist for the solo section was Donald Palumbo. Don had been associated with the chorus for years, starting out as a member of the tenor section in the late 1960’s and eventually becoming the chorus’s manager. For a few years in the 1970’s he lived and studied in Vienna; upon his return to Boston he began an active career as a vocal coach, accompanist, and preparer of opera choruses. This concert was his first appearance with the chorus after his return.
What nobody knew then, obviously, was that it would also be Bud Patterson’s last concert with his chorus. Even after a heart attack in the mid-1960’s, Bud continued to pursue a course of musical activities that would have exhausted a man half his age. In the summer of 1979 he underwent coronary bypass surgery. Don Palumbo agreed to conduct the annual ‘Summer Sings” in his stead and also to prepare the upcoming season’s first concert, a performance of Rossini’s Petite messe solennelle. Midway through rehearsals, Bud Patterson died at the age of 65. Don conducted the Rossini, which was dedicated to the memory of Alfred Nash Patterson, and shortly after was named Music Director of Chorus pro Musica, a post he held for the next ten years.
It was a critical time for the Chorus, for reasons that had little to do with Bud’s death. First of all, while CpM had never been the Boston Symphony’s official chorus, had in fact declined when offered the chance, the gradual severing of ties with the Orchestra deprived the Chorus of a good chunk of its own identity. In addition, the Chorus was a victim of its own success. At the start, from the 1940s through well into the 1960s, it had no real competition for what it was doing. It had created an environment for first-rate choral performance in Boston, and other organizations had sprung up to take advantage of the situation. Emulation created competition. One organization which rapidly became and remains a valued member of the Boston choral scene, the Cantata Singers, was in fact founded by some former members of CpM.
In many respects, and apart from their personal conducting styles, Don Palumbo was the ideal choice to succeed Bud Patterson. A first-rate musician, he also knew the chorus inside out. He had even lived with the Pattersons for a while on his return from Vienna. There is little question that if he hadn’t agreed to take the reins, the chorus might have died with its founder.
There is also little question that the chorus gave many extraordinary concerts under his direction. Throughout the 1980’s, in a city where small, tight, transparent choral sound had become almost a fetish, Chorus pro Musica was about the only independent chorus left that was unashamed to produce a big, rich, healthy sound where it was needed. Don also continued the CpM tradition of exploring the lesser-known reaches of the repertoire, focusing especially on music of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: Brahms motets and part songs, Bruckner masses, cantatas by Elgar and Vaughan Williams. (Towards the end of his tenure, Don led the chorus in a performance of Vaughan Williams’ lavish and seldom-heard Sea Symphony that is generally considered to be one of the crowning achievements of CpM’s first 40 years). Don also planned and conducted almost-annual a cappella concerts, each devoted to the music of a single country—England, the United States, France, Germany, Italy.
During Don Palumbo’s tenure, CpM entered into fruitful collaborations with two important musicians. Craig Smith first worked with the Chorus as a guest conductor in a concert that included Stravinsky’s Les Noces. This developed into a series of annual concerts with Emmanuel Music: first, a rare performance of Mozart’s great opera Idomeneo; subsequently, two even rarer Handel oratorios, Theodora and Alexander Balus. The casts were stellar, the reviews were everything a marketing agent could want, and, with performances as good as these, audiences seemed to have no qualms about sitting through concerts of unfamiliar music running well over three hours apiece.
The other collaboration was with Benjamin Zander and the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra. In recent years, thanks in large part to his extraordinary Mahler performances, Ben Zander has become a musical celebrity, here in Boston of course but especially in his native England. At the time (the 1980s), however, he was something of a cult figure, a maverick conductor determined to shake up perceptions of the standard repertoire. Chorus pro Musica first sang with him and the Philharmonic in a performance of the Verdi Requiem that had Boston’s musical community talking for weeks afterwards. Zander immediately sensed that this chorus had the sound and the flexibility he was looking for, and his trust in Don Palumbo’s judgment as a choral director was absolute. Although Zander had led the chorus as a guest conductor with the Boston Classical Orchestra, and even conducted a non-orchestral Christmas concert, it was CpM’s appearances with Ben’s own Philharmonic that caused the greatest stir.
Performances of Beethoven’s Ninth at Symphony Hall and Carnegie Hall generated a certain amount of controversy about metronome markings, fueled by Ben Zander’s own essay on the subject, which he distributed with the programs and which inspired a lengthy article/rebuttal by the New Yorker‘s Andrew Porter. Another high point was Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony, again performed at Symphony Hall and repeated at Carnegie Hall, where the concert was delayed about twenty minutes so that tickets could be sold to a line of people that stretched around the block.
Another musical collaboration was with the Pittsburgh Symphony during its few years of summer residence at Great Woods. Michael Tilson Thomas invited CpM to perform Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances on a program that included Leontyne Price singing arias by Mozart and Verdi. One of the arias is normally accompanied by an offstage male chorus, and the men of CpM found themselves backstage, half an hour before the concert, sightreading feverishly through the accompaniment. Shortly thereafter came Mahler’s Das klagende Lied on the evening after a rainy afternoon; frogs came out in hordes, and their croaking featured prominently, if unintentionally, in the performance.
Don Palumbo’s passion for opera and his outstanding talent for preparing opera choruses led CpM into an artistic field in which —Peter Grimes and Lohengrin aside—it had had very little experience. An invitation from Sarah CaIdwell and the Opera Company of Boston led to CpM’s introduction to stage makeup and costumes in her production of Aida with Shirley Verrett, David Arnold and the late James McCracken. There was something heartwarming about the sight of so many sturdy New Englanders enthusiastically pretending to be Nubian slaves. The chorus also appeared with the Opera Company in the Boston premiere of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass; the composer, in appreciative attendance at the final performance, pronounced it the best production he had ever seen.
Concert opera, which was fairly rare until the 1970s, has become the music-lover’s principal means of experiencing live opera in Boston these days. It was Donald Palumbo who led CpM into concert opera in a big way. As well as the aforementioned Idomeneo with Craig Smith, the chorus appeared in a Boston Concert Opera performance of Beethoven’s Fidelio under guest conductor Paul Nadler. The most prestigious concert opera performance of the Palumbo years, however, was certainly the version of Donizetti’s Anna Bolena with Dame Joan Sutherland and Jerry Hadley, conducted by Richard Bonynge. During rehearsals, Dame Joan would sit knitting until it was her turn to sing; she would then stand, face the house, and produce a sound so glorious and rich and-well, enormous, that it startled the chorus every time they heard it; and then she would sit and continue her knitting. (Dame Joan refers to Don Palumbo in her recent autobiography as “that wizard chorus master.”)
Donald Palumbo left CpM in 1988 to become Chorus Master of the Chicago Lyric Opera, a position he still holds, and was replaced by Donald Kendrick, who was on leave from his position as Director of Choral Activities at California State University, Sacramento. His opening concert at Jordan Hall was a program saluting veterans of all wars; it included Faure’s Requiem and Vaughan Williams’ seldom-heard Dona Nobis Pacem, and Kendrick’s former conducting teacher, the New England Conservatory’s own Lorna Cooke de Varon, was in the audience cheering him on. The season also included a concert of music by Canadian composers—a real rarity here south of the border—including a piece called Miniwonka which required musical notation that did not previously exist; the piece as written on the page was a work of art itself: music to be seen.
Don Kendrick returned to Sacramento after his year’s sabbatical was up. That summer James Oleson prepared the Chorus for another collaboration with the Pittsburgh Symphony at Great Woods—a performance of William Schuman’s Casey at the Bat, under the baton of Leonard Slatkin. Choristers attired in shorts and tee shirts, with borrowed children perched on their shoulders, passed bags of potato chips around the “bleachers” and did a wonderful “wave.”
In the fall of 1990, Jeffrey Rink became CpM’s fourth Music Director. Inheriting a season already programmed and advertised, he immediately faced the daunting task of paring down the 120-member chorus for the Boston premiere of Handel’s oratorio Esther. The final concert of Jeff’s first season included Zoltan Kodaly’s Psalmus Hungaricus and a rousing rendition of William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast. This was also the first time in over 25 years that Chorus pro Musica performed in Symphony Hall under its own auspices.
Jeff also conducted the New England Philharmonic, and collaborations between the two groups yielded several rewarding concerts, including Sir Michael Tippett’s A Child of Our Time, Mozart’s Mass in C minor (just can’t seem to get away from that piece), and Hindemith’s When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.
Concert opera has been one of CpM’s specialties during Jeffrey Rink’s tenure to date. First came a splendid, sexy Carmen in Worcester’s Mechanics Hall and in Symphony Hall. There followed a Merry Widow, a Faust, a Cavalleria Rusticana and I Pagliacci, and, last spring, a Turandot that packed Jordan Hall and brought the chorus thunderous ovations and critical raves. And there will be more.
There have been other memorable, nonoperatic concerts during Jeff’s tenure, including the Boston premiere of Antonio Estevez’s La Cantata Criolla, which drew the largest Latino audience in our history. Then there was Kurt Weill’s Das Berliner Requiem, sung so fiercely that one Boston Globe critic wrote that he was “relieved to return to the squalors of Boston street life.” Jeffrey Rink intends to maintain CpM’s role in presenting little-known works and premieres (such as last season’s Boston premiere of Henryk Górecki’s Miserere), even to the point of commissioning new works.
So here we are, after 50 years. Boston’s present-day choral scene—the proliferation of choruses, the high level of musical standards, the breadth and depth of repertoire—would amaze and delight the Alfred Nash Patterson of 1948, although in large part it exists thanks to him and the chorus he created. It also exists because of his three successors, all of whom have taken Chorus pro Musica’s specific role in the musical life of Boston very seriously. And it exists because of the hundreds of singers who have been members of CpM, some of them for many years indeed. Few choruses have packed so much history into so short a time. Even fewer have inspired such loyalty and pride in their members. As Bud said 50 years ago, “There is no reason to get excited about just another chorus.”
David Frieze is a former singer with Chorus pro Musica, and was a frequent contributor of program notes for CpM concerts.