By Sandra Davidson
In a typical choral performance, singers file onto a stage, climb risers, and arrange themselves by sections; soprano, tenor, bass, and alto singers stand shoulder to shoulder, primed to create collectively a big, beautiful sound known and loved by many. From church pews and school auditoriums to state-of-the-art concert halls, the ancient tradition of choir singing holds enduring appeal in sacred and secular arenas of public life.
But it’s a tradition that requires two elements that are non-negotiable during the coronavirus pandemic: large gatherings and close proximity to other people.
“All of us who love choral music are devastated to learn that the simple act of communal singing has been identified as one of the single most effective means of spreading this dangerous virus,” says Christine Kastner, executive director of the North Carolina Master Chorale.
Founded in 1942, the chorale is based in the Research Triangle area. As for so many performance groups, the pandemic has had a great impact on the chorale’s ability to present its work. In late March, the group made the difficult decision to cancel the 2020 season entirely. Shortly thereafter, it created a fundraiser to recoup losses from the cancellation. Although the fundraiser was a success —loyal patrons’ contributions exceeded the goal — the singers are still grappling with the intangible emotional, cultural, and social losses of not being able to perform music together in the presence of others.
“The Master Chorale is working to develop opportunities for us to safely make choral music during this unfortunate hiatus,” said Kastner. “Even in the best of times, we are always considering aspects of programming and production that bring relevance to our community. To suddenly find ourselves without any traditional means of presenting our art has really forced our hand to be creative and nimble and challenged us in ways like never before.”
Following a trend directly related to performance cancellations these days, the chorale is going virtual. On May 9,, the group released its first online performance: a heartfelt rendition of Elaine Hagenberg’s “You Shall Not Walk Alone,” created remotely by 16 of the group’s 200-person roster.
"We sent them each a recording of the accompaniment prepared by our accompanist Susan Lohr, along with a copy of the score and specific notes for phrasing and interpretation,” said Al Sturgis, the chorale’s music director.
"Each individual singer made a video of themselves singing their independent part while listening to the accompaniment. The tricky thing for the ensemble was that they were not able to hear any other singers while recording their parts.”
The group’s engineer, Brian Pappal, stitched together the recordings to produce the final arrangement, which conveyed a hopeful message of resilience and community—themes that people worldwide are channeling despite the social distancing required to fight the pandemic.
The presentation probably will not be the last virtual arts experience that the chorale will share with its patrons, given that a return to normal is unlikely soon.
"As we navigate these difficult times, we will learn how to expand the possibilities and platforms for connecting with the audience. These lessons will surely serve us going forward,” said Kaster. “The thing that keeps us going is the vision of how great it will feel when we one day stand together on stage again and sing this amazing repertoire that has survived for centuries and will live for centuries to come.”
About the Author
Sandra Davidson is the Content Director for the North Carolina Arts Council. A folklorist by trade, she creates photography, writing, videography, and audio productions to document the arts in our state. She is the host of the podcast Arts Across NC and the cohost of She and Her, a southern feminist podcast and radio show.