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.
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.
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
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.
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.