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Why I Became a Choral Groupie

Choral singing. There’s nothing like it. And Washington, a town particularly rich in musical offerings, is one of the best places in the world to hear great choral music. When the audience settles into their seats and opens their programs, they read about the exciting careers of the professional soloists.

But who are the people who make up the large choruses standing behind them?

As a choral singer for over 40 years, I can tell you who we are. We are all non-paid volunteers who rehearse once or twice a week over many months for the thrill of learning and performing a great choral work. We practice in the evenings, fighting our way through rush hour traffic, many times choosing music over dinner if we come straight from work. We cancel weekend plans to attend Saturday rehearsals.

For four seasons, I have sung with the 225-voice New Dominion Chorale, which is certainly the largest, and arguably the best choral group in Northern Virginia. Right now, we’re rehearsing Rossini’s Petite Messe Solennelle, which we will perform at 4 p.m. on Sunday, October 29, 2006 in the Rachel M. Schlesinger Concert Hall in Alexandria. It’s a blockbuster of a work, full of great melodies and unusual harmonies, and the closer we get to the performance, the more thrilling it becomes to practice.

Like other members of the group, I am constantly inspired to learn my music and sing my best by NDC’s artistic director and conductor, Thomas Beveridge. He works us hard, but he also regales us with funny episodes from his career as a singer and composer and tells us juicy anecdotes about legends such as Verdi, Leonard Bernstein, and Leopold Stokowski. We have a wonderful esprit de corps, and because nobody wants to let Tom down, we work even harder to master our music.

I AM A BUSY consultant during the day, and singing with this group is a wonderful outlet for my passion for music. Growing up in a musical family with more enthusiasm than talent, our multi-generational sing-alongs were the highlight of Christmas and Thanksgiving celebrations. I sang in church choirs, college choirs, and choruses in college, Germany and Panama, where we lived when my husband was posted abroad. Wherever I was, I sang. Not because I had a great voice, but because I loved it. But that’s the joy of choral singing. As one of many, I can make a grand sound.

In the last weeks of preparation for a concert, during dress rehearsals, I get closer to the lives of professional singers than I‘d ever imagined I could.

I confess that these Walter Mitty moments, when the professional and amateur musical worlds come together, thrill me. If only for a few hours, I am on the inside, I am one of them. One such moment came when I interviewed Issachah Savage, the gifted young tenor soloist who will sing with us for the Petite Messe Solennelle. This 23-year old, a graduate of Morgan State University who lives in Mt. Ranier, MD, has already sung under the batons of some of the world’s most respected conductors, including Kurt Masur, Robert Shaw, Yuri Termirkanov, Bobby McFerrin, and Marin Alsop.

When I asked how he had come by so many breaks, he told me, "I think it’s divine intervention. It’s so out of my control. But I don’t believe in divine intervention only. I believe in hard work. That’s one thing my mother taught me a lot about."

I delight at the prospect of hearing him sing, along with the rest of the professionals who will appear with us on stage that day. I know that Fabbiana Bravo, a soprano who is on the roster of the Metropolitan Opera, and Max Wittges, an acclaimed bass who is coming all the way from Germany to sing with us, will knock the socks off us choristers and the audience. I am in awe of singers like them, artists who have the instrument—the "gift." Pavarotti referred to his voice in the third person, as if it were a separate entity, to which he played host.

IN TALENT, I am worlds apart from these singers. But during performance, the distance vanishes. Together, we produce a complete musical experience. The day after a concert, I always grab the newspapers and impatiently search for a review. And when I read, as I did recently of the Verdi Requiem we performed last year, that "The New Dominion Chorale, well over 200 strong, sang not only with power but with delicacy and grace," I was more thrilled than an opera star reading a boffo rave after appearing at the Met.

Bravi!

Susan Miller is an alto in the all-volunteer New Dominion Chorale. She is a business consultant and a resident of Annandale. The Chorale is based in McLean and performs at the Rachel M. Schlesinger Concert Hall on the Alexandria campus of NOVA.