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Conductor Ryan LaBoy takes Berkshire choir groups to new level with latest spring concert and audience sing-along

After a May 17 concert at Zion Lutheran Church in Pittsfield, “The Sounds of Music” came to Saint James Place in Great Barrington.

Great Barrington — “The hills are alive with the sound of music,” sings Maria in the classic American musical that served as the springboard for the recent concert by the Berkshire Concert Choir and Berkshire Children’s Chorus. After a May 17 concert at Zion Lutheran Church in Pittsfield, “The Sounds of Music” came to Saint James Place in Great Barrington.

In a rich mezzo-soprano, Chelsea Beatty began Maria’s nostalgic solo about not wanting to leave (“a dream come true,” she said). Then Ryan José LaBoy, in his first season directing both choirs, turned to the audience to cue them in for the chorus.

When the song was over, the children processed in, strumming ukuleles on loan from Magic Fluke in Sheffield, singing a South Korean folk song, followed by a Scottish, and later a Mexican one (“songs they have sung for a thousand years”), followed by a combined singing of “My Favorite Things.”

“I was trying to think what sort of music speaks to this community, what sort of music folks love to sing, but also what music could challenge us to think differently about the way we think of art and culture and sound,” said LaBoy. He thought that everyone would love to sing “The Sound of Music,” and an audience sing-along had never been done by the choirs.

“I heard some robust voices out there,” he declared, “so you’re welcome to join us on the stage—not tonight, but another time.” Both groups are open to new singers, no audition required.

LaBoy turned to the lyrics of the musical itself, almost using word play, and ideas for other pieces started coming together, maybe a la food fusion, he said. He also wanted to interweave the two choirs together more, not just alternate them superficially. “I wanted it to be much more playful and back and forth. That was really important to me.”

For example, only after the children “went to bed” in “So Long, Farewell,” did the adults “romance and waltz the night away to Brahms’ Liebeslieder Walzer, a “raucous piece of music … and an homage to the von Trapp family’s musical roots.”

Suzanne Pelton, the Concert Choir’s president, said LaBoy “sequenced the music beautifully. The way [The Sound of Music pieces] wove around the others was masterful.”

“He’s such a cheerleader and also holds us to really high standards,” said Beatty. “He’s a great teacher; he can really talk to people about how they produce their singing voices.” She joined the Concert Choir last year, looking for ways to join into the music community after moving to the Berkshires from Boston. “It’s been such a lovely way to engage, meet people, and make beautiful music.”

After intermission, everyone sang “Edelweiss,” made haunting by the children’s stark strumming of the ukuleles. (“It’s really important that kids learn to accompany themselves on some instrument,” said LaBoy, because they can’t always bring the full choir with them.) This song about saying goodbye to one’s homeland led into “Everyday Wonders: The Girl from Aleppo,” a dissonant contemporary piece based on the memoir of Nujeen Mustafa, a 15-year-old with cerebral palsy forced to flee Syria.

“When [Maria von Trapp] and her family were sworn in as American citizens, she references in her memoir that there were Syrians being sworn in with her. And when she crosses into the Alps, Nujeen Mustafa, who loves American and British pop culture, thinks of ‘The Sound of Music’ and Maria,” explained LaBoy. He didn’t read the memoirs until after he had pulled much of the program together, realizing, “These two really brave courageous women are connecting to each other across time, across the globe. It’s really profound.”

Kisti Ornellas of Lanesborough, whose daughter shyly joined the children’s chorus this season, knowing only one person in it, said her daughter “absolutely loves it” and would come home and say, “Do you know there’s a place called Syria?”

“And she’d tell me about the songs,” Ornellas recounted.

“The [Aleppo] cantata was hard to memorize,” said Sarah Ehrich, “but once you knew it, it was actually not as hard as it looked.” (LaBoy says the children almost always memorize their music, to enhance their ability to connect.) Unlike the adults, Ehrich was previously unfamiliar with “The Sound of Music” except for having heard a few songs.

Four performances in, Ehrich says she has made a lot of friends in this chorus, which is a major draw, as it brings students from different schools together. “Our school has a lot of singing, but I think my favorite place to sing is here.”

Likewise, Montanna Inesta, in the chorus for a year, sings in school, and this is extra. “I like the people, and I like the music,” she declares.

“It’s really cool how it feels like you’ve been practicing for so long,” shares Una Goodman, 10, “but all of a sudden, you know all the music and you don’t have to look at it anymore.” Her favorite was “Hope for Resolution,” written for the end of apartheid in South Africa. “It brings everything together,” she said, and sounded really strong at the end.

Braxton Gladu said it was “very cool to be the only [boy]” in the children’s chorus. “I like it because it’s my own thing.” On why more boys aren’t in the chorus, he said, “Maybe they think it’s a girl thing, but some boys like to do girl things, too.”

Ryan José LaBoy conducts the Berkshire Children’s Chorus at Saint James Place. Photo by Kateri Kosek.

Today, Laboy said, “was a really spectacular performance.” The music was not easy, but he trusted the process. “You have to have grace for when things go wrong.” Some of the adult singers who initially “weren’t so sure about the repertoire” became impassioned along the way.

Pelton, who has been in the choir off and on since 2002, said she teared up at the “welcome to Germany” line in the Aleppo cantata. The piece was “so difficult we didn’t think we could do it, and all those songs in German, and by the way it goes really fast!” The children’s chorus, she said, is very good. “I think we’d like to sing with them again.”

“Our group has sung some very challenging music,” said Pelton, “but this went beyond just learning the music and presenting it. The engagement with the children and with the audience—it’s never been done before.”

Erica Alper, vice president, added that much came together at the final rehearsal, as the singers, pianists, violinist, and congo player had barely all been in the same room together.

The children’s chorus rehearses separately, in Pittsfield and Sheffield, but they also do retreats once a month. Ornellas’ daughter described it as “so magical” to hear what everyone sounded like together. “I’m having so much fun. I love this experience. I wish it didn’t end. I wish there was a lot more.”

The choirs are on hiatus for the summer, but visit the Berkshire Children’s Chorus’ or the Berkshire Concert Choir’s websites to learn more, join, or donate.

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