Waitsfield resident Tony Egan hadn’t sung in a choir in 40 years. Yet in 1992, when he met GMVS English teacher Danica Buckley and learned she was conducting the Northeast Kingdom Community Chorus, he thought, “Why can’t we have a community choir in the Mad River Valley too?” That was 30 years ago this season.
Tony placed a story in The Valley Reporter and made a lot of phone calls. Twenty-four local singers signed on. He said, “We ended up, serendipitously, with well-balanced voice sections. A miracle.” When I described him as the founder of the group, he was quick to say that he was only able to do it with the critical support of Jane Hobart, Fayston. Five months later, with the backing of the Green Mountain Cultural Center, 200 community members enjoyed Vivaldi’s “Gloria” at the Round Barn. Danica continued to lead the chorale until spring 1995 when she left Vermont.
To celebrate the 30th season milestone with an article, I did more research about this extraordinary group. My post requested special memories of Mad River Chorale. Almost immediately, I heard from an old friend, Susan Hoyt:
“Over the 30 years of Mad River Chorale, we’ve loved performing our Valley December holiday concerts at the Waitsfield or Warren United Church, depending on the number of singers and instrumentalists. It's a wonderful time for the community to come together in our beautifully decorated churches. We love seeing the faces, young and old, local and visiting, of every audience member to whose hearts we sing. Our mission is ‘Serving Our Community Through Song’.
“For 30 years, we have sung at one church or the other each December except in 2020, the pre-vaccination year of COVID, when our conductor and singers refused to forego producing a holiday concert for our loyal audience members. So, all of us learned to use technology (a huge challenge!) to record our individual voices at home, singing our own voice parts. Our voices were magically put together into a touching holiday concert video (found on YouTube), complete with photos of The Valley and singers speaking holiday messages.
Barbara Barra remembers that time as well, “There was a feeling of exhilaration when I saw the production of our first-ever virtual concert during the pandemic. It all started with the fear of the technology itself, and then quickly morphed into the fear of hearing our own individual voice on the at-home recordings we made in isolation. In the end, we trusted the expertise of our director, Mary Jane Austin, and were rewarded with a beautiful, moving concert that friends and family could enjoy from their living room.”
Susan continued her thoughts, “This year we are finally back to our pre-COVID numbers and will perform a sumptuous program of the Vivaldi “Gloria,” the Rutter “Magnificat,” the Pergolesi/Durante “Magnificat” and the sweet Berlioz "L'Adieu des Bergers" with 42 singers, piano, string quartet, trumpet and oboe at Waitsfield United Church of Christ, 7:30 p.m. December 10, and Waterbury Congregational Church, 7:30 p.m. December 11.
At one point, when the chorus was under the direction of Piero Bonamico, Mad River Chorale harbored three other groups: a children's chorus, a professional cabaret troupe, and an a cappella group.
Mad River Chorale owned a magnificent Kawai Shigeru concert grand piano which was located at the Bundy Art Gallery and then Warren United Church. The Bundy Art Gallery was leased for five years for performances of everything from internationally known classical musicians’ recitals to Circus Smirkus.”
The ensemble has a fortunate history of high school- and college-level educators as conductors and accompanists. Founding conductor Danica Buckley served for two and a half years, Piero Bonamico for 19 years, Mary Bonhag for two and Arthur Zorn as interim conductor for a year and a half. The current conductor is Mary Jane Austin who served as accompanist for nine years and has led the group for the past five. Joan Foster was the very first accompanist. Alison Cerutti has been collaborative accompanist for 17 years intermittently and the past five years full time. Vocal coach Eric Kroncke has served for two years.
MEMORIES OF PERFORMING
Tony Egan: “When we started rehearsing in January 1993, I was a board member of the Green Mountain Cultural Center at the Round Barn. They committed $500 to support the creation of the chorale. Then, we somehow dug up another $600 from generous local businesses and found a string quartet. We rehearsed weekly in the GMVS cafeteria, arriving early to take down the tables and set up our chairs. Singers included three amazingly talented soloists, Ann Wallis-Bull, Irene Hinchliffe and Marcia Smith, and in June we delivered a very creditable performance of Vivaldi's “Gloria,” a classic staple of the choral literature. Danica left GMVS two years later and we found a replacement in Piero Bonamico, graduate of the Eastman School of Music and Barre native. He was a force of nature. I designed some stationery, took on the "back office" stuff, applied for nonprofit tax-free status, and stayed out of the way.
“A personal moment stands out: In fall 2005 we took on Mozart's “Requiem” with a full (though small) orchestra and professional soloists. To fit everybody in, our venue was the Warren School gym. I have this very clear and emotional memory that after the crashing final chord there was complete and total silence from the very large audience. Not a peep. My heart stopped. It turned out the crowd was just stunned. After a few beats came the thunderous applause and all was well. I'll never forget it.”
Susan Hoyt: “One day in December 2000 we had a concert 2 1/2 hours south of Waitsfield in the Riley Center of The Arts at Burr and Burton Academy, Manchester, Vermont. There was a terrible snow and ice storm and the bus driver had to decide whether to take us there. He decided, yes, and it was the most treacherous ride you can imagine. But we arrived -- and we performed Handel’s “Messiah” to an audience of . . . five people! We sang the whole thing. The trip back was easier, and I do believe there were a few singers particularly enjoying their wine on that ride home.
“During a concert at the Barre Opera House in 2007, we were performing Magnificat: “The Groovy Version of OX” by Christoph Schönherr. We had just begun the first movement when the power went out, but although we could not see our music or the lyrics in Latin or the conductor, we kept singing without the orchestra and made it all the way through the long first movement flawlessly!
“In May 2019 when we joined with the South Burlington Community Chorus to perform the great and challenging “scenic oratorio,” Carmina Burana, we were honored with our longest standing ovation ever, almost three minutes! It was thrilling!”
Candace Porter: “Other than my family, nothing gives me more joy than singing with the Mad River Chorale. When it comes to memories, let us not forget the time an alto, on an upper riser, fainted during our epic Carmina Burana performance. The singers next to her not only broke her fall but managed to get her off stage with no disruption. Needless to say, the altos never missed a beat!”
Susan had a final thought, ““Our core mission has always been singing to support, entertain, educate and edify our Mad River Valley friends, neighbors and visitors through song. That is still the case, and it will be as we go forward.”
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