Silenced by the pandemic, a Philly choir at last sang together again. Here’s what it felt and sounded like.
Coronavirus had kept them silent. On Thursday, in Stone Harbor, the Coro Mundi voices vibrated together again. But would their first tenor be able to perform?
STONE HARBOR, N.J. — There was Italy, and then there was silence.
In 2018, the Coro Mundi Choir, formed by former Germantown Friends School choir director Steve Kushner, a revered and inspirational figure in members’ lives, sang at the Orvieto Festival Choir in Italy.
The music soared but was ephemeral; somehow no recordings were made.
Another Italy trip was planned for 2020, then canceled. Same, a plan for last summer.
On Thursday, in a thrilling yet nervous moment birthed during a jog on the beach, 19 members of the Coro Mundi Choir sang together again, rehearsing in nondescript Monsignor Quinn Hall on Third Avenue in Stone Harbor, next to St. Paul’s Church, where they will perform at 7:30 p.m. Saturday.
On Sunday at 4:30 p.m., they will perform again at the Presbyterian Church in Chestnut Hill.
One chair was empty Thursday: One of the five tenors had tested positive for the coronavirus in a rapid test taken on Kushner’s side porch earlier in the day. He’d sat outside in his car, listening to the start of the rehearsal, before going off to Jersey City for a more accurate PCR test, hopeful to return to perform his part, which included a solo in Aaron Copland’s “Lark.”
With a directing style dependent upon physical presence and movement, it was immediately apparent why Kushner was no longer willing to hold out for Italy. Choir members were led through a series of stretches, trills, warm-ups, and drills, together as one, urged to let the music move through them.
Their voices set the air vibrating and humming, the shared air a moment that felt both daring and reassuring. “I hadn’t sung a major chord with other people in two years,” said Julian Dorsey, 24, a systems engineer and a former student at Germantown Friends.
A tenor, Dorsey grew up singing in gospel choirs at his Black church, Mt. Zion Baptist in Germantown, then discovered a love for choral music with Kushner at GFS. (He says he was initially entranced by just one spellbinding passage in an Eric Whitacre piece, “Water Night,” in which harmonies split gloriously among 14 voices as they sing, “If you open your eyes.”)
“Even just the warm-ups, the trills, the humming,” Dorsey said Thursday night during a break. “To feel the vibrations of other people doing it in the same space is something that has been lacking.”
“I haven’t sung in two years,” said Seisei Tatebe-Goddu, 38, an alto and organizational consultant, who copped to the nervousness Kushner urged them to work through. Kushner said he was surprised by the tentativeness; he’d anticipated they’d be raring to go, even to a fault.
“It felt lovely,” said Sarah DeFrancisco, 22, a soprano and cellular biologist, who wore a T-shirt from The Vaccines, an English indie rock band.
Outside, people stopped to listen as the choir’s voices carried through the open windows, rehearsing the apt “In a Dark and Distant Year” movement from Whitacre’s The Sacred Veil (”He was a fool then, and he was all alone.”). Several came to the door and begged to be allowed to sit and listen (masked) for just a bit.
Like the musicians, they’d been starved for such a moment.
Rapid tests a block from the ocean
To reach that moment, choir members, most either Germantown Friends or Phillips Exeter Academy alums of Kushner’s high school choirs, first had to pass what felt like an audition out of a dystopian future: a COVID rapid test.
Spread out for the weekend among several rental houses within a block of Kushner’s, they reported to Kushner’s side porch hours before their first rehearsal in three years.
It all seemed routine, until one member of the choir tested positive, twice, in the rapid test, then went off in search of a PCR test that might come back quickly with a different result. And in fact, the news was good, and Friday morning, negative test in hand, Michael Roberts was on his way back to Stone Harbor.
It would have been a significant loss; the tenor was also a soloist. He’d prepared on his own, as the others did, eager to once again experience the ambition, depth of emotion, and technical excellence of a Kushner performance. It can’t be had remotely.
Earlier Thursday, in the side yard, now masked, Roberts, a marketing executive from Brooklyn, sang his solo from “Lark.”
“O Believer, O Rejoicer, Say,” he sang in a rich tenor, his voice drifting for now, over a quiet autumn beach block, calling on the Lark to speak.
The others all tested negative, with only their singing to worry about, and, as it turns out, a widespread revival of the slight terror they all felt encountering their exacting musical mentor from high school.
There was some dark humor. “Do you have a tentative [positive]? That makes it exciting,” said Paolo Carminati, 43, a wine importer who sings bass.
Leading up to the rehearsal, Kushner and members of the choir reflected on the drought wrought by COVID-19, in which the very act of singing in a choir became dangerous, associated with a super spreader event in Oregon.
Carminati, who performed in the Exeter choir when Kushner was director there, said he took a paying job in a church choir in White Plains, N.Y., during the pandemic, but the congregation was sparse, mostly remote.
“I think it’s really to remember why we did it in the first place,” he said. “With Steve, is where a lot of us learned to love it.”
He recalled experiencing the high school performances as perfect, but on re-listening, “Musically it wasn’t perfect at all.”
Nicholas Weininger, 43, a software engineer, who’d flown in from San Francisco for the weekend, had done some virtual choir performances, where individual singers use click tracks and software to create the final sound. But the experience eliminated something essential.
“It totally lacked most of which made choral singing fun,” Weininger said. “The ability to sing with others in real time, to adjust your singing in response to what you’re hearing from others, that joining together to create this blended sound is so much of what’s pleasurable about choral singing.”
“Are we masking?” soprano Julie Snyder asked at the start of what would be more than 10 hours of rehearsing over two days.
Told no by Kushner, she replied: “Alleluia!”
That sentiment carried over into the rehearsal, as it had into the selection of the music, which included, in fact, “Gaudeamus Omnes” by Marek Raczynski, based on a Gregorian chant that builds to the singing of “Halleluyah.”
The entire repertoire of the weekend’s concert was deliberately chosen by Kushner with deep attention to the experiences of the last year and a half. In addition to the Whitacre and Copland pieces, the choir is performing “The Passing of the Year,” by Jonathan Dove, and Leonard Bernstein’s “Make Our Garden Grow,” plus pieces by Raczynski and Paul Mealor.
“There’s a lot about the feelings about love and connection to each other that we’ve been working so hard to sustain the last year and half,” Weininger said. “The kind of griefs and joys we’ve had going into and going out of the pandemic.”
With Roberts’ return, Weininger no longer had to worry about having to sustain the parts of two tenors and a new solo (he also had inherited the other tenor’s wine). “Getting to sing together as a choir without so many of the extreme precautions people had to do is a great measure of rebirth,” he said.
Addressing the choir, Kushner noted Snyder’s heartfelt “Alleluia,” a sentiment that Thursday night ran deep. “Getting together with these folks feels like home for me,” he said. His programming, he said, “explores in some respects what creates a sense of home for us. It explores this sense of how we feel connected... exploring that space between what is transcendent and what is imminent.
“I felt moved to respond to all that folks seem to be experiencing as a result of the pandemic,” Kushner said. “Not only loss, but also a sense of life, a sense of hope, a sense of connection.”
And so the choir sang, a bit nervously, the words of “In a Dark and Distant Year,” about a “wand’rer ancient and austere” who “trusted no one’s shadow but his own,” who eventually comes across a girl, laughing by the shore, who “unlocked his heart and let his spirit soar.”
Who, like Kushner and his Coro Mundi Choir at last together, even in this smaller and Jersey Shore version, says, “You are the world to me, and you feel like home.”