Fresno Master Chorale Alto Nancy Price
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Requiem” is considered by many to be one of the most glorious pieces of classical music ever written, each movement a treasure and a jewel.
So it’s perhaps fitting that my choral group, the Fresno Master Chorale, has chosen the work for its first live, in-person concert since the start of the pandemic two years ago.
A Mass for the Dead
Why the Requiem? Our artistic director/conductor, Dr. Anna Hamre, explains.
“The board debated about the music we should sing for our return concert. Marion Karian suggested the Mozart Requiem, and I knew immediately it was the right choice for multiple reasons. On a practical level, the orchestra doesn’t require huge forces, allowing us more distancing on stage than is available with other works. It also will fit within our current rehearsal time-limit protocols. On an artistic level, the work is one of the greatest choral-orchestral compositions of all time, and it is always a privilege to get to perform it.
“But there is one more layer that is significant, and that is the subject of the work. This is a Requiem, a Mass for the Dead. Our country has lost thousands upon thousands of souls in the past two years. It was devastating in many locations, and the burden on our health care workers was crushing. So, we are remembering those we lost.”
We’ll be performing at 2:30 p.m. Sunday, April 3 at the Shaghoian Performing Arts Center on the Clovis North High School campus.
Tickets will be “virtual” (no paper) and can be obtained through the Chorale’s website. Although the Shaghoian Concert Hall seats over 700, ticket sales will be limited to about 500 to allow for some distancing. And even though mask mandates have been lifted by the state, audience members will need to wear a mask inside the building out of an abundance of caution and to protect themselves and the musicians, who also will be masked. Audience members also will need to show proof of vaccination.
Safety has been uppermost on our minds since the pandemic erupted in 2020.
On March 10, 2020 we had gathered for our usual Tuesday night rehearsal in preparation for an upcoming concert. Halfway through the rehearsal, our board president gave us the sad news — that night would be our last chance to sing together in person for some time. Board members had been following closely the health advisories that were already emerging around the nation for a newly erupted contagion called COVID-19. “Singing was described as perhaps the most hazardous vehicle for spreading the virus,” says our board president, Alan Peters.
We may have been lucky, or maybe the coronavirus wasn’t then as widespread in the Fresno area. On that same night in Seattle, a choir practice turned into a superspreader event that sickened 52 people, of whom two died.
We Valley singers hunkered down and hoped the pandemic would soon release its grip. When that didn’t happen, some of us recorded videos of ourselves individually singing a capella (without music) Peter Lutkin’s “The Lord Bless You” and Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus,” with the individual videos stitched into “concert” videos. Some of us purchased special audio equipment to sing together in a “virtual” choir (as we all learned over the past two years, Zoom and other video platforms are not optimal for group singing).
Anna gives a lot of credit to our chorus leadership with keeping us engaged over the many months. “Because our passion is considered a high-risk activity, the pandemic has been enormously challenging for all choirs,” she says. “That challenge has been amplified for the Fresno Master Chorale, because we are a large symphonic choir with a number of members over 65 and others with compromised immune systems. But we have endured!
“With the extraordinary creative leadership of a committed board, we explored every possible pandemic activity. There were Zoom sessions, parking lot choirs, jack-trip choirs, webinars, skill-development classes, and chats with composers. We rehearsed outdoors, fighting bad light, smokey air, and mosquitoes. Nothing was more important than the safety of our singers, so we required masks, vaccinations, health screening, and social distancing. We invested in HEPA air filtration systems and CO2 monitors. We kept in close contact with our medical advisers, especially focusing on the advice given to choirs by the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine Center for Emerging Pathogens.
“We kept singing! We even recorded the premiere of a new work!”
But for us singers, virtual singing is a poor substitute for the fellowship and combined creative experience that we share when we can gather together to raise our voices. So it was with great excitement when we finally got the green light to resume our Tuesday evening rehearsals, which are held in the high-ceilinged sanctuary and nearby hall at Hope Lutheran Church. As you can see in the photo that tops my story, we sit a few feet apart from each other, wearing masks. Every week we fill out a health questionnaire. And we’ve all been vaccinated and boosted.
Joy in Singing
Singing is a communal activity. Singers are in such sync that we breathe together, our hearts beat together, and all our senses are alive. There’s a pure joy to sharing with audiences the music that we have worked hard to learn and to perform, whether it’s in a Fresno-area concert hall or on one of our tours that have taken us around the world as well as to Carnegie Hall in New York.
I’ve sung the Mozart Requiem as a second alto and a first tenor with two Valley choruses, and the work occupies a special place in my heart. Our upcoming concert may be my most emotional performance yet — I’ll be jubilant that we are again performing in person, but my joy will be tempered by the sadness that there are fellow chorus members and many community members who are no longer with us.
That includes Dr. John Donaldson, a Fresno Pacific retired physics professor and former Fresno County supervisor who was one of the founding members of the Fresno Community Chorus, the Chorale’s original name. John’s deep bass voice and trademark bow ties were a presence for decades in the group — I can still hear the rumbling low note that John voiced during one of our holiday concerts at St. Anne’s Chapel in Fresno.
The concert is being dedicated in John’s honor and memory, according to our board president.
“He was a charter member of the group and sang in the chorus from 1956 until his illness and death. He and his wife and family have been significant financial supporters during the entire history of the chorus, and the Donaldson Family Trust, established by John and Shirley, has now continued that support with a wonderful legacy to the Fresno Master Chorale,” Peters says.
For the Requiem concert, the Fresno Master Chorale will be joined by soloists Maria Briggs, assistant professor of voice at Fresno State; Geoffrey Friedley, tenor, former instructor at Fresno State who now is at Idaho State; Karen Wilkerson, mezzo soprano, currently teaching at St. Olaf College in Minnesota; and Frank Pitts, bass, who has found success in both opera and musical theater.
There will be one more piece of music on the concert lineup, something that was added in recognition of the terrible crisis in Ukraine and the suffering of the Ukrainian people. To show our solidarity with them — and our fellow singers with roots in that Eastern European country — we’ll be singing the Ukrainian National Anthem, “Shche ne vmerla Ukrainy.”