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Celebrating Music and Friendship at BCI

The loving lyric to the dead which ends Brahms's German Requiem ("... that they rest from their labors, and that their works follow after them") floated softly into the summer night. Robert Page lowered his baton and for a moment a hushed silence enfolded chorus, orchestra and audience. And then the applause. Not the usual applause, enthusiastic or polite, but the kind of outpouring from spectators and participants alike, usually reserved for great celebrations. Another concert had ended and with it the second season of the Berkshire Choral Institute.

Berkshire School, home of BCI

A vibrant testimonial to doers (as opposed to watchers, mockers, or talkers), the Berkshire Choral Institute (BCI) is the concept of John Hoyt Stookey, an industrialist and, along with his wife Appy, a passionately committed choral singer. Stookey, sensing the growing reaction to our passive age, felt that great music, wonderfully performed, does not need to be the sole domain of a handful of professionals in urban centers or academia. Our rich choral heritage has always lent itself to a type of group music-making which continues to nourish the lives of its participants. What would happen if people were offered the opportunity of spending a singing vacation in a beautiful setting, staffed by first-rate musical and administrative personnel?

In order to help him test his dream, Stookey engaged the well-known choral conductor and organist, Charles Dodsley Walker, as dean, and Mary H. Smith, formerly assistant manager of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and currently registrar and assistant dean of The Juilliard School, as executive director. The picture book campus of the Berkshire School was selected as BCI's home, with the enthusiastic encouragement and support of that prep school's headmaster and board. A general staff was assembled, and programs were planned. The inaugural summer's three one-week sessions were to include the Verdi Requiem (under Page), Handel's Samson (under Walker), and Haydn's Creation (under Richard Westenburg). Mailing lists were acquired and a descriptive brochure was prepared and sent out. Arrangements with the Springfield Symphony Orchestra were made. Then, Stookey and his enterprising crew held their breath to see what would happen. What did happen seemed like a miracle.

They came from all over the United States and Canada. They ranged in age from 18 to 76. They came singly or as couples or whole families (provisions are made for "non-singing spouses or friends"). Their professional credentials read like the table of contents to Studs Terkel's Working, and their application forms and subsequent questionnaires must be a demographer's delight. This widely divergent group whose one common denominator was the love of making music converged in the green hills of Massachusetts to spend a week of precious vacation time.

The fee for a week's stay (roughly $400) includes lodgings, three meals a day, classes in such disciplines as sight-singing and voice production; discussions of the work-of-the-week from the analytical as well as historical and cultural viewpoints; a number of special speakers on topics of particular interest; rehearsals and, of course, the Berkshire Choral Festival Concert on Saturday evening with full symphony orchestra. While the standards of performance and scholarship are extraordinarily high, it is not forgotten that this is also a vacation, and ample time is allotted to free afternoons for swimming or other summertime Berkshire pursuits, for visits to nearby Tanglewood, or for "rap time" in the evening.

Robert Page directing warm-ups

And rap they do. People who were, on Sunday afternoon, total and timid strangers, have become true friends by the gala post-concert party on Saturday night. The atmosphere has been compared to summer camp, and the analogies are many and obvious: a spirit of camaraderie arising from shared moments of trial, tribulation, and ecstasy. The tribulation may stem from the inevitabilities of dormitory life: the heat, scarcity of towels, mechanics of managing the upper berth of bunk beds, etc. But judging by the choristers' reactions, rewards far outweigh discomforts. The return rate this year was over 50%.

The summer of 1983 offered a four-week program during which over 500 singers participated, as compared to the 220 of the prior year's three-week school. Mary Smith points to several reasons behind the impressively increasing enrollment figures. In addition to the gratifying number of returnees, each singer has been a powerful p.r. force in getting the word around. They go back to their church choirs or choral groups and tell colleagues and friends about all they've learned from working under the direction of a famous conductor. In fact, many choral directors show up to sing, and come away with invaluable insights gathered from the rehearsal techniques of the master conductors. The masterworks chosen for performance at the remarkable hockey rink — Bolt, Beranek and Newman designed the acoustical apparatus with felicity — were the Bach B minor Mass with Charles Dodsley Walker, scenes from Aida and Meistersinger with John Mauceri, the Mozart Solemn Vespers and Mass in C minor with Loma Cooke deVaron, and the Brahms German Requiem with Robert Page. Plans for 1984 include the St. John Passion of Bach, Mendelssohn's Elijah and Haydn's Seasons. Because of the intensity of the response, there is even talk of a fifth week. While eligibility requirements for participation will continue to be underplayed, some evidence of choral experience is requested.

Gala BCI concert in the hockey rink

Critical reaction to the Berkshire experiment has ranged from incredulous to rhapsodic. After the very first performance, the Berkshire Eagle reported that the Verdi Requiem was performed "with such shattering impact and such refined musical interpretation, it would be difficult to find a better reading among established organizations." The season's final performance led the reviewer to observe: "First and foremost, the Institute has proved the unlikely premise that it is possible to assemble a group of singers from all over the country... mold them into a cohesive singing unit in a scant six days, and present first-rate performances."

But in evaluating BCI, it is not the judgment of the press or the presence of even the most charismatic conductor which must ultimately be considered. It is the feeling of the participants themselves, of the lady from Florida who cut short her vacation in Ireland to attend, or the good-natured woman whose luggage was lost when she changed buses and who nevertheless was more excited by the presence of Brahms than by the absence of bags. "I came to BCI prepared only to immerse myself in music and the mountains for a week," wrote a singer from Connecticut. "I left BCI touched by an experience which truly bordered on the spiritual. It has been most difficult to express my feelings about that week to people who didn't share it with me, and quite wonderful to find many of those who were there keeping in touch and building on the new friendships that were made."

No wonder the applause in the hockey rink seemed like a celebration.

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