Hitting all the high notes
Cape Cod Life / November/December 2016 / Art & Entertainment, People & Businesses, Recreation & Activities
Writer: Marina Davalos / Photographer: Luke Simpson
The Falmouth Chorale’s members enjoy performing and improving—but most of all they just love to sing!
In the orchestra pit, the musicians, all dressed in black, tune their instruments. The sound of violins fills the auditorium at Falmouth Academy as bows fly across strings, and the deeper notes of cellos reverberate. The orchestra is warming up for the Falmouth Chorale, soon to arrive on stage. Baton in hand, the chorale’s artistic director, John Yankee, enters the auditorium and flips through his songbook, a broad smile on his face. He chats quietly with members of the orchestra, which frequently accompanies the chorale, and whose members play with various ensembles, including the Cape Symphony, the Plymouth Philharmonic Orchestra, and the New Bedford Symphony Orchestra.
The auditorium is filled to near capacity. The lights go down, and the audience goes quiet. Andrea Garber of Falmouth, the chorale’s co-president, steps onto the stage and welcomes those in attendance. “We produce these concerts just because we love what we do,” she says of the mostly volunteer group. Behind her, chorale members clad in black file into their respective rows, where in just minutes they will burst into harmonizing song.
This is “A Choral Fantasia,” Yankee’s creation, and it incorporates three well-known pieces: Bach’s Magnificat, Mozart’s Regina Coeli, and Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy. The show was performed in March of 2016—and the chorale is currently preparing for three shows in December and two more concerts in March and May of 2017.
With some 90 members, the Falmouth Chorale puts on four concerts during the year in October, December, March, and May; typically 55 to 65 members participate in any given performance. “The October and March concerts feature more large-scale choral works, great classical works like Mozart’s Requiem,” Yankee says.
Garber appreciates that Yankee chooses difficult pieces for the chorale to perform, and that he requires his singers to be fully committed. “He challenges us,” she says. “It’s hard work to bring 70-something people together. Everyone has to sing like a leader.”
To become a member of the chorale, singers must participate in an eight-minute voice placement session, during which Yankee checks their pitch and vocal range. They must also commit to weekly rehearsals. The singers range in age from 20 to 80, and come from varied professions: One is a lab technician at Falmouth Hospital, two are music teachers, and another is a first-grade teacher. While most chorale members live in Falmouth, others come from all over the Cape and beyond.
A few chorale members shared some notes on their musical background—and what singing, and being a member of this chorale, has meant to them. “I discovered that singing was what was missing from my life,” says Sarah Sadler, the chorale manager who lives in Plymouth. “Growing up, I always sang. But something happened to me in my sophomore year of college—I was struck with a terrible case of stage fright.” Sadler stopped singing altogether, and didn’t sing again for 20 years. In 2011, though, she decided to try choral singing. Nervous at first, she soon realized that she “needed” to sing. “It’s always good when you can find what’s missing,” Sadler says. She has been singing with the chorale ever since, and now she’s in her fourth year as manager.
Not only do chorale members enjoy singing and the camaraderie of the group, they also value Yankee’s talent for bringing out their best. “He is so dedicated to the music; it’s not just a job for him. He demands the best from all chorale members,” says Garber, a social worker. Anne Tupper of Falmouth, who works at the Verizon call center, says her involvement over the years has improved her voice. “I’ve been singing in this chorale for 20 years,” Tupper says, “and I keep getting better.” Woods Hole resident Mary Swope, who has sung in choruses in Boston and Washington, D.C., echoes that sentiment: “John is a great conductor. I’ve always sung, but not as well as I do now, and I’m 78!”
Yankee offered high praise for his singers as well. “They are pretty fearless,” he says. “I have a strong concept of how things are supposed to sound, and I love that the group accepts the challenge and is willing to work to reach that level.”
To start each rehearsal, Yankee leads the singers through breathing exercises and vocal warm-ups. “I believe that they appreciate me helping them to improve.”
The chorale got its start in 1964 when two Falmouth men—the Reverend William Campbell, an organist; and John Gerry-Karanjes, a choir director—and 13 musicians performed Handel’s Messiah at the Lawrence School. It was so successful that the choir continued performing and gave itself a name: the Falmouth Interfaith Choir. The choir became a fixture in Falmouth’s Christmas/Hanukkah and Easter/Passover seasons, performing at various churches in the town. “They always put on something classical—Bach, Beethoven, Mozart,” says the chorale’s historian, Doris Pierce, who lives in Pocasset. “They drew in huge crowds and got rave reviews.”
In 1991 Frederick Johnson, a music teacher at Falmouth High, was named director of the Interfaith Choir. Johnson stayed with the choir for the next 17 years as it flourished in the town. In 2004, the name was changed to the Falmouth Chorale, reflecting its rise from church choir to community singing group.
Yankee came on board in 2007. “We had sent out an ad for an intern,” Pierce recalls. “John answered, and we chose him because he assured us he would live in Falmouth, and that the Falmouth Chorale would be his primary reason for being here.”
Yankee completed his undergraduate studies as a trumpeter at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, a division of Johns Hopkins University, and earned a master’s degree in performance in trumpet from the Yale School of Music. Before relocating to Falmouth, he lived in San Diego and was artistic director of the San Diego Choral Union and Children’s Choir. His contract with the Falmouth Chorale began as a seven-month position as a guest conductor, and he was subsequently invited to be the new artistic director. Yankee is also music director of the Falmouth Chamber Players Orchestra, choral director at Falmouth Academy, and the founding artistic director of the Cape Cod Children’s Chorus.
The passion Yankee and the Falmouth Chorale members feel for singing and sharing music with the community is evident at every performance. Concert logistics coordinator Dave Mills, who lives in Sandwich and works at Joint Base Cape Cod as a facility manager for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has been singing with the chorale for six years, and singing choral music for more than 40 years. He says the opportunity to perform great music for an appreciative audience is a feeling that’s hard to beat. “It’s the best natural high you can ever have,” says Mills, “singing to an audience and seeing everyone go away smiling.”
A native Cape Codder, Marina Davalos is a freelance writer who lives in Cotuit.
The Falmouth Chorale was scheduled to kick off its 2016-2017 season with a 260th birthday tribute to Mozart entitled “Mozart 260,” on October 22-23, at the John Wesley United Methodist Church in Falmouth.
The Cape Cod Children’s Chorus will join the chorale for its holiday concert, “Tis the Seasons,” which will include Christmas music and songs of the season from Thanksgiving and into the New Year. Performances will be at the First Congregational Church of Falmouth, 68 Main Street, on Saturday, December 10, at 4 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, December 11, at 3 p.m.
On Sunday, March 19, 2017, at 7 p.m., the chorale will team up with the Zamir Chorale of Boston to present “PsalmSensation,” featuring Chichester Psalms, The Last Words of David, Boston composer Emmett Price’s Joyful Noise, and more. The performance will be at the Lawrence School, 113 Lakeview Avenue, Falmouth.
This season’s final concert, “I Hear America Singing,” will take guests along a timeline of American music, from Aaron Copland to Woody Guthrie. Performances will be held Saturday and Sunday, May 6-7, 2017, at 4 p.m., at John Wesley United Methodist Church, 270 Gifford Street, Falmouth.
Advance tickets for all events are $25 for adults, $5 for students.
For more information, visit falmouthchorale.org.