Farrington Grove Chorale: All Natural

Hoping to report on the Terre Haute music scene more broadly, I attended this season’s final performance of the Farrington Grove Chorale at Unity Presbyterian Church.  While listening, it occurred to me that there are young people who barely know what an unamplified human voice sounds like. Chorale member Jane Conner, alto, echoed this thought.

“Too many people are afraid to sing,” Conner said. “We have so many opportunities to hear excellent singers, always amplified and often enhanced, that we don’t have time – or don’t take the time – to make music ourselves.  Many people spend hours each week involved in watching sports…I wish music could fill just a few of those hours.”

“I believe that humanitarianism and creativity has suffered because of the decline of music making in the home and neighborhoods,” said Paul Ellison

If video killed the radio star, perhaps radio killed the amateur musician. Family music ensembles and gathering around the piano to sing the latest sheet music are quaint behavior in the age of iPods and downloads. People can listen to music 24/7, but engaging with music shouldn’t be a passive activity.

“I believe that humanitarianism and creativity has suffered because of the decline of music making in the home and neighborhoods,” said Paul Ellison, a tenor who’s been singing with the Farrington Grove Chorale for about six years.

Ellison, the choir director at Terre Haute South Vigo, is currently completing his Master’s Degree in Music Education at Indiana State. His level of education and professional involvement in music is fairly typical of the Chorale’s membership. Jane Conner taught music for 25 years at University School and 10 years in ISU Department of Music.  She also played flute in the Terre Haute Symphony for 9 years, and founded the Terre Haute Children’s Choir and directed that group from 1993 to 2002.

Conner’s husband, Don, a retired optometrist and current alpaca breeder and farmer, sings baritone in the Chorale. The Conners are one of three married couples in the group.  Asked who has the best voice, she said, diplomatically, that she’s the best alto and he’s the best baritone in the house. He said, fondly, “My wife, Jane.”

Eclectic is a term that might be over-used in descriptions of music on NPR, but there’s really no better word to sum up the Tuesday night program, which started with the motet “Exultate Deo” by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, a late sixteenth century composer, and ended with “Let the River Run,” a song by Carly Simon featured in the movie Working Girl.

The latter work was sung in a choral arrangement by Craig Hella Johnson, who was the second director of Chanticleer, the popular male classical vocal ensemble. Dr. Mark Carlisle, current director of the Farrington Grove Chorale worked with Johnson when both were at the University of Texas at Austin. Carlisle also had the opportunity to work with Moses Hogan whose arrangements of traditional spirituals are known for complex jazz and blues style harmonies.

All the singers I interviewed noted that the Farrington Grove Chorale provided a different experience from singing in a church choir because they were able to tackle more complex, challenging works. Hogan’s arrangement of “Abide with Me” was a good example of what they meant.

Julie Edwards and Shirley Martin are co-managers of the group.

According to Martin, “The music is high quality and the performances are refined.  Every member is extremely excited about singing together.”

This excitement, and joy in the music was evident on the singers’ faces as they performed. Obviously, they make the most of their eight rehearsals.

“Our biggest challenge is finding rehearsal time that everyone can attend,” Edwards said.  “We take 20 minutes or so at our first rehearsal to go through potential dates with everyone checking their calendars.  Once we come up with rehearsal times, they are set in stone.  And, yes, we do start and end on time, and try not to waste a single minute of our time together.”

For many members of the Chorale, these minutes have added up since they have been members since the group was founded by Dr. Ramon Mayer, retired conductor of the Terre Haute Symphony and Director of Choral Activities at ISU in 2000. Martin explained that Mayer preferred to perform pieces by master composers such as Handel, Mozart, and Brahms.

“Dr. Mayer was particularly good at teaching us how to approach a variety of musical styles appropriately, and how to listen to one another for a well-blended sound,” Edwards said.

Mayer retired from conducting altogether in 2011, and Nancy Cobb-Lippens, then Director of the ISU School of Music, became director, continuing until she moved to take a new position last year.

“She wanted a bigger choral sound and added 5 members to the choir for a total of 25,” Martin said. “She used her own compositions as well as some contemporary composers.”

Edwards added that Cobb-Lippens worked a lot on diction, and Tuesday’s performance showed that the singers excel in that skill. Their consonants were sharp and vowels well rounded in Latin, French and English.

According to Martin, Carlisle “works intently on expression and blend.  He picks composers that have a lot of emotion in their music and wants our voices to paint a picture.  He’s used composers ranging from the masters to Broadway.”

Since 2011, JR Hershberger, who studied with Dr. Meyer, has assisted the Farrington Grove Chorale.

“His repertoire is usually religious choral pieces that are filled with full, loud sections and ending with a dramatic climax,” Martin said.

Her statement was born out by Hershberger’s conducting of “Deus Misereatur” by John Sanders and “An Expression of Gratitude” by David Schwoebel. Both built to an impressive crescendo. You can make a wall of sound with 23 voices in harmony.

Just natural voices. No amplifier needed.

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