BAR HARBOR — For most folks, the highlights of summertime fun on Mount Desert Island are outdoorsy delights such as hikes in Acadia National Park, boating in Frenchman Bay or the Western Way, swimming at Long Pond, Echo Lake or, for the very brave, Sand Beach. A game of golf, perhaps, or tennis match.
But, for 50 years now, for an impressive number of local and summer folks, the big thrill is spending several evenings a week, throughout July, filing into a stuffy church hall or cluttered high school music room, to sit in uncomfortable chairs and learn a new piece of very complicated choral music.
The Mount Desert Summer Chorale is a tradition started, somewhat inadvertently, five decades ago by John Harms, and it is still going strong.
To mark its half-century anniversary, guest conductor George Emlen and the 75-member Chorale will perform a gala concert at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, July 28, at St, Mary’s by the Sea in Northeast Harbor.
The fourth director, David Schildkret and the Chorale will perform “Elijah” by Felix Mendelssohn at 7:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, Aug. 3-4, at St. Saviour’s Church,
“The past couple of summers we have been presenting smaller, lower-budget concerts in preparations for this big one” says Schildkret. “In fact, this is the biggest we have ever done, with eight soloists, including superstar Gordon Hawkins, who has sung at the Met and is now with the Washington National Opera.”
Not to mention a virtually full orchestra.
Maestro Harms probably had no idea that the little summer concert he threw together in 1968 would put down such deep and expanding roots. Initially he invited a few of his singer friends in New York to visit him on MDI for a casual performance of Rossini’s “Stabat Mater” telling them he’d try to lure members of his St. Mary’s by the Sea, church choir from their boats, beaches and tennis courts to back them up. Not only did dozens of singers agree to give up their fun in the sun — the concert turned out to be a big hit filling the pews of St. Mary’s — they all were eager to do it again the next summer. As it turned out, they kept Harms coming back for the next 13 summers.
Harms turned his baton over to Wilson Gault in 1982, who promptly passed it to George Emlen, who expanded the choir and started to add a small orchestra, largely gleaned from the Bangor Symphony. When Emlen retired in 1999, David Schildkret took over.
Schildkret is now the director of choral activities at Arizona State University and he mines his own student body and even his own talented family for fresh young voices to take on most of the difficult solos, although he has found some local talents up to the task as well.
Local talent Marsha Lyons has been singing with the Chorale for 20 years and counting and has often been called upon to sing solos with her lilting soprano. But Lyons says she is also content, as this year, to simply be part of the chorus, which actually has a big role in this “Elijah.”
“Singing has always been a sanctuary for me,” Lyons says. “Not just from really bad times — and there has certainly been a need for that this past year — but for the small irritations in life as well. A letter from the IRS, a stressful day at work. I can go into rehearsal feeling out of sorts and disgruntled and find myself singing all the way home. I think it works that way for a lot of people.”
She adds that a work such as the “Elijah,” which is so dramatic with the biblical prophet battling the forces of the Baal worshippers, is a terrific emotional catharsis for her own, one hopes, less apocalyptic battles.
Lyons began her musical journey with MDSC when George Emlen was the director, and says she enjoys the different dynamic each director has brought to the party.
“David[Schildkret] is perfectly suited to direct this work,” she says. “He is always reminding us that this is a story — and an exciting one— and it should be sung that way as if we were telling it for the first time.”
Another soprano, Julia Laird, is one of the Maestro’s ringers from Arizona State, singing with the Chorale for the first time. She reiterates what Lyons says about the director’s insistence that these works are not simply words set to music, but thrilling stories.
“It’s not just about getting the notes right but getting the emotions right. He encourages us to think about who we are in each movement of the program.”
This is born out when, at a recent rehearsal, whilst singing a passage about mighty winds, firestorms, floods and volcanic eruptions — your basic fire and brimstone scenario — Schildkret stopped it mid-measure.
“These disasters are being recounted by the Baal worshippers,” he said. “Elijah has just killed their prophets — their friends! How would you feel about that? Angry, right? Pretend that you are telling all this horror— that just happened — to a rather dull child. To keep his interest, you have to act it out with your voices, your emotions. Sell it!”
When they try the passage again it really is scarier and more immediate, one can almost hear the smashing of rocks, the tearing winds.
“When I take on a new work,” Schildkret says, “one of my big objectives is to find a way through the dramatic peaks and valleys of a piece, to give it shape and continuity. Sometimes that requires figuring out why the composer made certain puzzling choices. When I manage to solve that puzzle it is often the key to opening up the whole thing.”
For him, tackling these musical mysteries is as thrilling as others might find an Agatha Christie murder mystery.
Schildkret says Mendelssohn’s “Elijah” is fully loaded with thrills and chills and, he believes, has a message that is still relevant.
“When Elijah feels he has been fighting a lost cause” Schildkret says. “that all the havoc the has created to topple Baal, has been futile, he falls into deep despair, wanting to die and be done with it. But God comes to him and convinces him to endure. He reminds Elijah of the need for quiet fortitude and the steadfast pursuit of fairness and right. God tells him to endure. Who among us, today, couldn’t benefit from that advice?”
To celebrate the endurance of the Chorale there will be a couple of extra added attractions for this special anniversary season. Saturday, July 28, at 7:30 p.m. the Chorale will return to its original venue at St, Mary’s by the Sea in Northeast Harbor for a gala concert featuring several of the visiting soloist in works by Mozart, Haydn, Faure and others. Guest conductor George Emlen also will conduct a sample of the “Elijah,” which he first directed for the Chorale’s 30th anniversary in 1998.
On Aug. 2 at 7:30 p.m., it’s back to St. Saviour’s for a benefit concert “Songs of Love and Remembrance” with more guest soloists singing classical compositions, classic pop and Broadway love tunes.
For more info, and to reserve tickets to any or all of these events, go to www.summerchorale.org or call 244-0042.