A Taconic High School student chorus led by Cantilena Chamber Choir Director Andrea Goodman. Photo courtesy the Choir

Community choral groups go silent as the pandemic drags on

For people dedicated to performing choral music, including the next generation of singers, the loss can be heartbreaking.

Singing in a choir provides a rare kind of pleasure that you can’t get anywhere else. Feelings of camaraderie blend well with the sense of awe that great choral music inspires. Andrea Goodman knows this well. For about two decades, she has directed the Lenox-based Cantilena Chamber Choir, which on September 4 gave an outdoor performance on the grounds of Shakespeare & Company, along with singers from other area choirs. The day was bright and the singing strong, but there was little joy for Goodman.

“My idea in creating this event,” Goodman said in an email, “was originally the big return to choral singing in the Berkshires, and I was hoping that we would have 300–400 singers. The Delta variant stopped that cold, with two choirs backing out, and the rest only bringing about half their singers.”

For pretty obvious reasons, the company of unmasked persons in large numbers singing indoors at the top of their lungs during a global respiratory illness outbreak is considered hazardous to most people in the non-lunatic population. That puts the kibosh on all activities a choir engages in. And for people dedicated to performing choral music, the loss can be heartbreaking.

In 2020, Cantilena Chamber Choir was forced to cancel its spring tour and its May 17 fundraising concert at Trinity Church. In June, with pandemic numbers improving, the choir members, all vaccinated, sang indoors without masks. Then came the Delta variant, new fears, and new restrictions. And more disappointment.

“I don’t know which choirs are starting up again this fall,” Goodman said, “but we have several mothers with young children who are choosing to sit out until their kids get vaccinated or the infection rate goes down below 1 percent. So we are not going to continue unless we can sing indoors without masks as we did in June, as we were all vaccinated.”

Tracy Wilson, director of the Stockbridge Festival Chorus, plans to start rehearsals in early October for a December 11 Christmas concert. She detailed her plans in an email.

“We will require all singers to be fully vaccinated and wear masks at all times. We will be providing masks appropriate for singers. The rehearsal space is the spacious sanctuary of First Congregational Church of Stockbridge, with windows open and greatly spaced singers. Our choir isn’t large, so we can easily seat singers 10 feet apart and staggered rows.”

Photo courtesy Berkshire Lyric, 2018

Jack Brown is artistic director of the Pittsfield-based Berkshire Lyric Chorus, the largest and longest running choral organization in the Berkshires. His story sounds all too familiar.

“All of our live activities came to a grinding halt in March of 2020, and we have not met live in any form for the past 18 months. We have tried to stay together socially with various Zoom rehearsals and lectures, as well as some virtual performances.”

Brown is, however, upbeat about the near future.

“Two of our choruses are returning to live rehearsals this month, with the goal of having live concerts in December. The Berkshire Lyric Chorus (ages 16–80) will be fully vaccinated and masked for all rehearsals.

“Melodious Accord, our select ensemble for about a dozen high school girls, will also be starting up on a different day, again masked and fully vaccinated. We will abide by the current CDC and state guidelines. If they tighten up and prevent us from meeting, we will cease rehearsals and hope to resume in January.

“If (and it’s probably a big IF) things improve by January, we will resume with the bigger adult chorus working towards a return to Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood for a performance, with orchestra, of the Mozart Requiem and music of Brahms.

“The biggest casualty going forward for Berkshire Lyric is that we will continue to suspend all activities for our own children’s chorus. The Lyric Children’s Chorus is a tuition-free ensemble that Lyric has supported for decades for children ages 6–14. Without a vaccine, there is just no way for them to safely meet. Having to shut down for a full two years will be a real set-back for young singers who had been learning and progressing naturally into a specialized world of good singing and great music. Once they miss that, it is difficult to make it up in their lives.

“Our fourth ensemble, known as Ubi Caritas, is a select summer a cappella group for those ages 16–28. They were unable to meet in 2020 and again in 2021. Their summer concerts since 2012 had raised over $10,000 for local food pantries. All of these three younger groups (all tuition free) have been a wonderful feeder into having young adults in the larger Berkshire Lyric Chorus. The absence of the three groups aimed at younger singers has certainly created an obstacle to overcome going forward if Berkshire Lyric wants to enjoy our very unusual multi-generational culture.

“I remember that when the pandemic first hit, there was a lot of prediction that the enormous American choral community would be hit the most of all the arts groups, not fully recovering for at least 3 or 4 years. I thought that was an exaggeration at the time, but it now rings true. This is all happening at a time when community choruses and church choirs are dealing with our own specific set of problems: aging members, a general lighter commitment to group activities, and cultural shift away from traditional western choral music.

“So we certainly all have our work cut out, but we are in a much better place than this time last year, thanks to the vaccine. The good news is that people want to express themselves musically, and being part of a chorus is an ideal way to come to grips with the beauty and meaning that high culture can still provide.”