Berkshire Lyric chorus marks 50 years in Pittsfield
LENOX -- Ninety voices are singing in Russian, softening the gutteral sound into a rush that builds like the beginning of rain.
They hand new music around the room. These sheets come fresh from the printer.
Jack Brown sings a passage as he turns the pages.
At the piano, Robert Blafield plays the opening bars to music he is still writing.
The chords form under his hands, forceful, sweet and minor.
He has written this setting for "Sangha," a poem by Danna Faulds, a Berkshire poet and Kripalu yoga practitioner. (Her husband has taught yoga at Kripalu for 30 years.)
Berkshire Lyric will celebrate Blafield, their founding director, and their 50-year anniversary, when they sing his music in Ozawa Hall on Sunday.
"Sangha" is "a love poem about the love of a community, rather than two people," Blafield said.
He recognizes in it the passion and strife of a long love. He and his late wife, Audrey, were married for 60 years.
The poem seems fitting for the chorus, he said, because Berkshire Lyric has grown into a community.
They welcome singers of all ages and levels: a children's chorus, a teen chorus, scholarships for young singers and partnerships with local high schools.
Berkshire Lyric's current director, Jack Brown, now leads Ubi Charitas, a group of college-age singers who perform together in the summer.
"We work in and with the community," he said.
"The range of people has been fantastic," Blafield said. "We had a tenor who was a state supreme court justice in Massachusetts. William Gibson, the playwright, came to rehearsals" because he was studying a Bach Mass for a play in progress.
They want to be inclusive, Blafield said. They will welcome anyone who will become part of the group.
Berkshire Lyric began, in 1963, out of a series of accidents.
"Good things come out of bad things if you make it happen," Blafield said.
He came to the Berkshires from New York, where he coached voice and opera. He and Audrey came to Hinsdale with their first child -- to a cabin they built from instructions in library books, on a hillside so isolated they had to ski out in winter.
In 1962, at Christmas, he broke a leg, and they wound up renting a house in Pittsfield, where he began playing the organ at Temple Anshe Amunim and teaching opera at the Berkshire Music School.
There, with encouragement, he founded Berkshire Lyric Theatre.
In the early years, they put on Gilbert and Sullivan, Puccini comic operas and musicals at the Berkshire Museum.
Sam Barnes of Pittsfield, a tenor and the longest-running member of Berkshire Lyric at 83, remembers those shows.
He has sung with Berkshire Lyric since 1968, when he came to the Berkshires to work with naval ordinance systems and fleet ballistic missiles at General Electric. He had served as a naval commander, he said, on destroyers in the Korean War.
His wife, Joy, brought him into the chorus, as she sang leading roles in Pirates of Penzance and H.M.S. Pinafore.
But the royalties for musicals were steep, Blafield said, and the group gravitated to choral music.
Sunday's concert will gather selections from the range of music they have sung together over the years, from big choruses -- Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms -- to anthems from Richard Rodgers.
Berkshire Lyric alums will return to solo, notably Metropolitan Opera soprano Maureen O'Flynn, who began singing with Blafield when she was 13.
"We skew a little larger and a little younger than many other local groups, because we work hard at it," Brown said.
They have as many as 40 singers in the free children's chorus.
"I felt children should be treated with respect and given the best in music," Blafield said. "I don't believe in talking down to children. I believe in engaging them."
He has spoken to teens who didn't know who George Gershwin was, or children who didn't know great American folk songs -- and he wanted to teach them.
Sunday's concert honors folk songs in new settings, and contemporary music from Samuel Barber's "In Shining Light" and Paulus' "Road Home" to Aaron Copland's "At the River" and "Simple Gifts."
Copland too taught at Berkshire Music School, and he talked with Blafield, though they never met. Blafield coached the leading tenor in Copland's "Tender Land," and he would often call Copland with questions. He found Copland friendly and humbling.
Blafield admires many contemporary composers, and has met many. But some trends in contemporary music trouble him. The arts tend to be unkind to people who are not going along with the fashion, he said, and the current fashion feels, to him, mechanical.
"It doesn't address human emotions," he said. "I think music should always be passionate. Even Bach, as intellectual as he is -- a cello concerto can break your heart."
If you go ...
What: Berkshire Lyric 50th anniversary concert with Berkshire Lyric Chorus, Blafield Children's Chorus, soprano Maureen O'Flynn and Berkshire Lyric founder Robert Blafield.
When: Sunday at 3 p.m.
Where: Ozawa Hall, Tanglewood, Route 183, Lenox
Information: (413) 298-5365, berkshirelyricinfo.org
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