SHEFFIELD -- On a sultry summer's day, the air-conditioned hockey rink at Berkshire School houses a rarified scene: 200 singers dressed in rainbow colors, arranged on risers, voices raised in song.
On Aug. 2, the Berkshire Choral Festival (BCF) will close its three-week Sheffield season with Edward Elgar's masterpiece, "Dream of Gerontius," conducted by Kent Tritle and accompanied by the Springfield Symphony Orchestra, with soloists tenor John Bellemer, mezzo soprano Sara Murphy and baritone Sidney Outlaw.
Premiered in 1900, the libretto Elgar condensed from Cardinal Newman's 1865 poem initially met with widespread disapproval in staunchly Anglican England for its profoundly Catholic theme. Now one of the UK's most beloved choral works, it is still rarely performed in the U.S.
Gerontius, an old man on his death bed, prays to God and all the Angels to deliver his soul: "Jesu, Maria -- I am near to death, / And Thou art calling me."
After he dies, his guardian angel accompanies his soul past demons and angelic choirs on its journey to Judgment, finally delivering him into Purgatory.
"I went to sleep, and now I am refreshed," the voices sing.
Tritle directs the Oratorio Society and Musica Sacra choruses of NYC, and he is music director and organist at St. John the Divine Cathedral. Now on his third BCF visit, he selected "Gerontius" from his list of works he had yet to conduct.
"Oh, what a heart-subduing melody," Newman wrote.
"It has great emotional content," Tritle said. "Immediately there's a portal to the soul of the individual contributor that is opened.
"When you get to the apotheosis at the end, it's just unbelievably beautiful, it's exquisite."
Founded in 1982, BCF performed until 2009 in a building with sides open to the elements. Now, the air-conditioned rink allows for choral performances "without the mosquitoes and bats and thunderstorms," BCF president Debi Kennedy said.
"BCF is like boot camp or summer stock for choral singers," Tritle said. "They come in knowing a lot but being ready for the real forming of the work. You work hard and efficiently within a few days and get it together. It's quite an amazing process."
The festival runs seven weeks each year in Sheffield, around the U.S. and other countries, including Ireland and Italy. Each season offers several choral music styles, "romantic music, early music, theater music, to give [the] choristers a choice," music director Frank Nemhauser explained.
The singers are all amateurs with extensive choral experience and enviable loyalty.
"Eighty-five percent of the people that come every year are repeaters," Kennedy said, many "double or triple dippers" who attend more than one session. Singers wear pins marked with the years they have joined in, and 20 and 30 or more years is not uncommon.
Singers form close friendships over the years.
"We've had people who end up getting married," Kennedy said.
"I feel in me an inexpressive lightness, and a sense of freedom," Newman's poem says.
"People say, when I drive onto the campus every summer, it's like the rest of the world goes away," Kennedy said.
Pat Frizelle, 77, of western New York has taken part for 14 years.
"As an untrained singer, it provides me with wonderful music, great conductors and travel," she said. "It takes me to a level of musicality that I've never been at before."
After learning the piece at home, Frizelle relishes the moment the chorus comes together.
"The first rehearsal is like heaven," she said, "because you realize that this is going to be really good."
"It's such a special place," 15-year veteran Cheri Fry, 67, of New Hamphire said. "Just the joy of being here and having this place where you can come and forget about everything and immerse yourself in music."
Now in their 70s, Martha and Burrell Fisher from central New York, met through a college choir and started singing at BCF in 1994 once their children were grown.
"Somebody said that BCF has three halves," Burrell Fisher recalled. "Half of it are the people, half of it is the surroundings and what you're doing, and the other half is the conductor and the music. It all adds up to a lot more than one."
"For me, the music in general and this place feed my soul," Martha Fisher explained. "We're hoping through the concert that we feed the souls of the people that are listening."
"That calm and joy uprising in thy soul," Newman wrote, "is first-fruit to thee of thy recompense, and heaven begun."
If you go ...
What: Berkshire Choral Festival performance of ‘Dream of Gerontius' by Edward Elgar,
conducted by Kent Tritle with the Springfield Symphony Orchestra
Where: Berkshire School, Sheffield
When: 7:30 p.m Saturday, Aug. 2 Pre-concert lecture at 6:15 p.m.
Admission: $20 to $45
Open dress rehearsal from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., admission by donation, free to ticket holders
Information: (413) 229-1999, choralfest.org