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Ubi Caritas chorus sings to support Berkshire faith-based food ministries

Ubi Caritas chorus

Berkshire Lyric Choral Director Jack Brown conducts the Ubi Caritas chorus.

Some people sing for their supper. A cappella chamber choir Ubi Caritas sings so others can have a supper to eat.

In the 10 years since Berkshire Lyric Choral Director Jack Brown founded Ubi Caritas, the mixed voice chorus for ages 16 to 28 has raised over $10,000 to support local food pantries run by area faith communities throughout Berkshire County.

On Aug. 7, 20 singers will perform unaccompanied sacred and secular choral works at 3 p.m., at  St. Mark’s Catholic Church in Pittsfield and at 5 p.m. at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Stockbridge, to raise funds for their respective food ministries.

The varied 45-minute program features 20th century and contemporary choral selections, and arrangements of traditional folk songs and spirituals by composers including Gwyneth Walker, Moses Hogan and Eriks Esenvalds.

Berkshire Lyric composer-in-residence and ensemble singer Anson Olds set the Robert Frost poem "In a Vale” to music, while Susan LaBarr includes the words of American poet and environmentalist Wendell Berry in her piece, “More Than Enough.”

The group’s concerts always include “Ubi Caritas,” Maurice Durufle’s 1960 arrangement of a Gregorian Chant — the ensemble took its name from the sacred text “Ubi Caritas et amor, Deus ibi est” (Where charity and love are, God is there) — as well as a second arrangement of the text, this time by Richard Kidd.

There are five choral ensembles under Berkshire Lyric’s umbrella: Lyric Children’s Chorus for singers ages 6 to 14; Melodious Accord for high school girls; Berkshire Lyric Chamber Chorus; the principal 80-voice Berkshire Lyric Chorus; and Ubi Caritas, all led by Brown. In 2007, he succeeded the late Robert Blafield, who founded Berkshire Lyric in 1963.

"Choral literature in general is the biggest, deepest tradition, we go back six centuries,” Brown said in a recent phone interview. “A lot of concerts with my choirs, we’re doing very old music and very contemporary music in many different languages and cultural backgrounds.”

Brown explained the origins of Ubi Caritas.

“I work at Hotchkiss School during the year, so I have free time in the summer,” he said. “I have all these relationships with kids from different schools that have been through Berkshire Lyric, and they were home from college. So I said, let’s put together a crash course with an invited group, and we’ll have eight rehearsals, and then do three concerts all in the same day — this year we’re doing two — we’ll just pile into cars.

“An a cappella group travels very light, I just need a pitch pipe and a music stand. We don’t need to worry if the piano is tuned.”

This church-hopping schedule evokes the storied tradition of itinerant Venetian choirs, who travel on foot from church to church each Sunday, stopping for a moment on the Rialto Bridge to practice a particular piece.

“We don’t charge admission, the church passes the plate for their local food ministry,” Brown said. “To be able to give money away for a good cause, I think the kids really appreciate that.”

The need for food assistance “has just exploded in the last couple of years all over the county,” Brown added.

The standard of singing is usually very high, he said. “This is one of the groups that I really push because they have a lot of talent, a lot of ability. We do some pretty demanding music.”

“Good singers can be nurtured fairly quickly if we identify the talent. It’s just amazing how they can grow between 16 and 22,” Brown added.

Singers must leave Ubi Caritas at age 30, but they’re welcome to sing with the other groups, Brown said. “We’ve had people that have done all 10 years, and kids who stay with us for five years then leave the area. This year we have three that have never sung with us before.”

Besides fostering a love of music and teaching valuable choral skills, youth programs prepare new singers for the main Berkshire Lyric Chorus.

“You have to have some youthful energy in order to really do justice to the music,” Brown explained. “Older singers bring a lot to the table with experience, and that can’t be discounted. But you have to balance that with some youthful sound quality, too. And when you blend it all together, you get some real power.”

A former concert singer himself, Brown has passed his passion for choral music down to his daughter Fiona, now aged 28. “She sings in all our groups and just loves it,” Brown said proudly.

“There’s so much energy in these kids, giving up their time on a hot Monday night to go to church and take very detailed, demanding direction on some complex music.”

One singer, Lucy Garrison, even showed up the same day she had her wisdom teeth extracted. She had missed the previous week’s rehearsal, and “didn’t want to get behind,” Brown said.

“Kids enjoy being around their own age, it empowers them,” he added. “This is a particular kind of community that they have, I bring them snacks and they catch up with each other in the summer. I just like the sound they can make.”

Several Ubi Caritas members are former Berkshire Lyric Choral Scholars, a program for promising young singers that begins around age 16.

“They get free voice lessons all through high school, all they have to do is be part of the big chorus on Monday nights,” Brown explained. “I help them with school auditions, if they’re in a musical, all-state chorus, college audition tapes, they get a lot of free guidance. When they go to school and continue to sing, they’re the best-prepared kids there.”

“I’ve got four or five of these kids, they’re very talented singers,” Brown added.

Choral Scholar and Pittsfield resident Caroline Fairweather began singing with Berkshire Lyric ensembles at age 9.

“She’s doing a solo in one of these pieces, it sounds beautiful,” Brown said. “She’s a peach, the best of the Berkshires.”

“Choral Scholars was how I got vocal training in high school,” Fairweather, a recent Williams College graduate, said during a recent interview by phone. “It was very valuable, I was able to audition for voice lessons at Williams. I had repertoire, songs I had worked on, thanks to that program.”

She went on to direct the college’s Ephlat a cappella ensemble, and sing in annual Opera Workshop productions.

Fairweather has performed with Ubi Caritas since 2015. “This is the first year it’s been back fully in person [post-pandemic], which is very exciting,” she said.

She especially appreciates the many opportunities for soloists to shine.

“Jack Brown is a magician, he picks solos that are very well suited to the soloists,” Fairweather said. “My solo is an arrangement of ‘Bright Morning Stars,’ it’s folksy-sounding and came very naturally. It’s a lot of fun.

“One of my good friends, Lily Lothrop, she’s a great operatic soprano, and the solos she gets fit her voice and sound so perfectly.”

“Every single singer has a rich history of vocal work with Berkshire Lyric and beyond,” Fairweather added. “[Brown] is very appreciative of everybody’s individual experiences, and what makes them who they are as an artist.”

Besides the chorus, Fairweather also assists Brown with his free weeklong children’s summer choral music camp; and she was his assistant for Lyric Children’s Chorus before it shut down in March 2020.

“It’s come full circle,” she said, “I’m teaching kids who are in the same program that I was.”

Fairweather finds Ubi Caritas’ connection to charitable work “very motivating.”

“Being part of this group, making excellent music, feeling confident we’re using our craft that we’ve all developed, we’re making good work that we’re really proud of, but it’s not for us. At the end of the day, it’s an offering to the community.”

If You Go

Who: Berkshire Lyric's Ubi Caritas

What: 10th anniversary a cappella chamber choir concerts to benefit Berkshire faith-based food ministries

When: Sunday, Aug. 7

Performances: 3 p.m., St. Mark’s Catholic Church, 400 West St. Pittsfield and 5 p.m., St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, 11 Elm St. Stockbridge

Admission: Free, no tickets required. Free-will offerings will go towards the host organizations food ministries.

More information: 413-298-5365, berkshirelyric.org 

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