DAVIDSON – Jane Shoemaker recalls the start of the Choral Arts Society of Davidson a decade ago very well. This year the group will celebrate its 10th anniversary season.
“The year was 2007, and in the newly-redesigned Sloan Music Center on the Davidson College campus, Choral Director Ray Sprague was about to give the college’s esteemed choral music program a whole new look,” Shoemaker said in a statement.
She said Sprague invited experienced singers from the faculty, student body and the community at-large to join what was then called the Concert Choir.
“The name has changed,” Shoemaker wrote. “But the commitment to a town and gown partnership is stronger than ever.”
Chris Gilliam, the group’s current director, agrees.
“I couldn’t ask for a better mixture,” Gilliam said in a statement. “We have students, professors, church choristers, fine soloists. Everyone is up to the challenge of creating memorable music.”
Lexi Lain is a soprano in the chorale. She said she joined the group as a means of getting back in touch with her music roots.
Originally from Dallas where she sang in choirs, Lain attended college in Seattle and mostly stopped singing during her 10 years there.
“Texas is a concrete jungle, and Seattle is just gray,” she said. “So when I decided to move I asked myself, ‘What do I need?’ and the answer was sunshine and music.”
Laine, a naturopathic physician, said the Charlotte area and particularly Lake Norman fit the bill.
And while she wanted to connect with music generally, her specific desire was to be part of a four-part chorus: soprano, alto, tenor and bass.
“I wanted to be standing next to a bass and tenor, and I wanted to be part of something that was musically challenging,” she said. “And Dr. Gilliam offers that challenge in such an amazing and healthy way.”
Gilliam, who took the reins of the chorale in 2012, said his main message in directing is getting his members to understand that the sum is greater than its parts.
“In choral music we unite to be better as a whole than we are individually,” he said. “And if I can’t teach the singers to accomplish that, I’m not being a good teacher.”
Gilliam said the director’s job is to help the singers meld into a single entity, and he accomplishes that by helping them “get out of their own way” and allowing the music to happen.
“I respect the singers and I respect the music,” he said. “Music has been given to us to nurture our spirit – whether you believe in the spirit or not. In life we often work toward a common goal, and in chorale singing that common goal is harmony. And if that’s not a metaphor for a life worth living and a life whose goal is to be a better human being, I don’t know what is.”
Gilliam said his role is one of pointing the singers to that unique place where that harmony can be found.
“I help them channel their gifts and allow the music to convey its message,” he said. “But it’s not about me. It’s not about any one person. It about the harmony.”
Marianne LeVigne, who is also a soprano with the chorale, said that’s all that makes sense to her.
“It’s an incredible experience,” she said. “Even the rehearsals are so powerful that when I leave them I feel this this letdown because we have reached this level that is so moving.”
Jane Cain, music director and organist at Davidson College Presbyterian Church, agreed.
“With Chris,” she said in a statement, ”it's like a voice lesson every week and has helped me be both a better singer and better choir director. Plus, singing great music just feeds my soul.”
The 10th anniversary season features Franz Joseph Haydn’s “Lord Nelson Mass” in the fall and living composer Dan Forrest’s newest major work, “Jubilate Deo,” in the spring.
Gilliam said the “Lord Nelson Mass” is also known as the “Mass For Troubled Times,” and that the work is particularly poignant now.
“I think we are living in troubled times,” he said. “And our hope is that if people feel troubled when they arrive that they leave feeling peaceful.”
Between those two concerts are the twice-sold-out Holiday Gala and a Messiah sing-along open to all.
Forrest’s work features seven languages and a wide spectrum of musical influences, and will be accompanied by instrumentalists from the Charlotte Symphony.
“It is always a challenge for a choir to sing in multiple languages, especially when – as in the Forrest ‘Jubilate Deo’ – they have to tackle so many different languages in one piece,” Gilliam said. “It’s not every day they have to learn to sing in Chinese, Zulu, Hebrew and Arabic."
For more information about the season or to schedule an audition, visit the Choral Arts Society website www.casdavidson.org.