Why is the Fresno Master Chorale so excited about returning to full-concert form? Ask Alan Peters, who has been singing for 80 years.
The songbirds of the Fresno Master Chorale have been cooped up in their Covid cage far too long. On Sunday, they’ll get a chance again to fly.
The 140-member chorale, which hasn’t offered a full-scale public concert in two and a half years, performs Mozart’s Requiem Mass at 2:30 p.m. Sunday, April 3, at Shaghoian Hall. Anna Hamre conducts.
Nancy Price, a member of the ensemble and reporter for GV Wire, writes about the concert and the experience of not being able to sing for so long in an enlightening piece.
Related story: Critic’s notebook: Coro Piccolo in ‘Suddenly with the Angels (December 2021)
And: In an unsettling pandemic development, Fresno Master Chorale postpones first scheduled live concert (August 2021)
Meanwhile, I caught up via phone and email with Alan Peters, president of the board of directors of the Fresno Community Chorus (of which the Master Chorale is the largest ensemble), to celebrate.
Q: Let’s not bury the big news: After two and a half years of coping with Covid, the Fresno Master Chorale is returning in force to sing in public. For many of your singers, it’s been a tough time. Why?
A: Singing together in a choir is an experience somewhat like being in the same family! You are part of something larger than yourself with a goal of working hard to combine a variety of unique sounds, skills, individual roles and sensitivities into a single product conceived by a composer, unified by a choral conductor, utilizing the coordinated—but definitely different—contributions of many participants, to produce a product that combines all of the differences in each individual contribution into a single joint product that provides meaning, emotion, purpose and beauty into a harmonic whole. For a person who loves this challenge, and who has experienced the exhilaration of being a part of this joint effort over the years, it creates a void and a personal loss when this close-knit venture is snatched away. You can’t create harmony by yourself, and when that is a significant part of your life, it robs you a part of your personal identity.
Q: Your board tried a lot of different ways to keep the singing going. One was a technology called JackTrip. Early in the pandemic, it was lauded as a way of keeping choirs together virtually. How did that work out for you?
A: Our first attempt to sing “together” online remotely using ZOOM was, as most know from bitter experience, a calamity. There is an unexpected and unpredictable “lag time” from each computer, and the result was a chaos of noise. The “JackTrip” system was developed to correct this timing problem in the Zoom process. It requires fairly expensive extra equipment, processing through a dedicated website, and an “ether-net” connection to the internet (rather than a “wi-fi” connection). It worked well for us, but was limited to a rather small group of singers who were able to afford the extra equipment. Earphones were required in order to hear the other singers, so it was definitely an improvement over Zoom, but was still a bit clumsy, and certainly NOT like singing together in the same room.
Q: I’m intrigued that you had parking-lot gatherings where everyone could sing in the safety of their cars. What was that experience like? If I’d happened to walk through the parking lot when it happened, could I have heard you all singing?
A: We all pre-arranged to meet together in a parking lot, to sing together, each from our socially distanced cars. The Chorale purchased a short-range radio transmitter that allowed comments, instructions, and instrumental accompaniment to be broadcast over each car radio. We brought our copies of the music scores to the rehearsal, and joined in singing the songs, with our car windows open, providing the opportunity to hear the “shadows” of each other’s voices from a distance.
It wasn’t exactly like singing next to each other on a stage, but it gave us the chance to see each other and make music together, even if it wasn’t quite the same.
Q: Singing is one of the “best” ways of transmitting the coronavirus. Think back to March 2020, when word came out that a choir rehearsal in Washington was a super-spreader event. What was the mood at your last rehearsal before shutdown?
A: March 10, 2020, was a difficult evening for us. Our regular rehearsal was scheduled that night, and we were finishing up our preparations for our next concert, which was just around the corner. The board of directors of the Chorale met before the rehearsal and reviewed the medical reports that we had just received. There was clear evidence that we were facing a real problem. The reports from a senior health facility in Washington that reported deaths due to the virus concerned us, as many members of our chorale met the description of those who were said to be most vulnerable, and singing was reported to be a particularly powerful cause for the spread of disease.
We knew we had to make a decision without delay, since we were at the point where we would soon no longer be able to cancel our venue reservation for our soon-to-occur concert. We decided to be cautious and cancelled the concert—and our future rehearsals—until further notice. When all the members arrived for the rehearsal, we explained our decision and sent the singers home. It turns out our decision was apparently a good one, as we later heard that a similar choir met for rehearsal that same night, and a large number of that choir’s members became ill with the virus, and two later died.
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Q: The Fresno Community Chorus (of which the Master Chorale is a part) has been diligent in Covid safety. You even have a medical adviser. Tell us about her.
A: In the early months of the pandemic, we heard that Dr. Neha Nanda of the Center for Emerging Pathogens at the USC Keck School of Medicine was particularly interested in the effects of group singing in the face of Covid-19 and was offering her services and advice to choral groups within the state of California. She researched the impact of the disease upon singing, and provided medical webinars by Zoom and provided answers to the many questions raised by choirs throughout the state, including children’s choirs, high school and collegiate choral groups, and professional and community choruses.
She provided us all with up-to-date information, and outlined the risks of group singing, and studied the various measures that a choir could take to address singing safety, including masks, social distancing, hepa air filters and standards for air circulation within rehearsal and performance venue, testing options, and the levels of community transmission, hospitalization, and deaths in the various counties of California. She gave clear and convincing recommendations to each choir in her consultation role, and we are still involved with her and sharing our efforts to mitigate the risks of rehearsing and performing.
Q: All this is leading up to the news that your singers are still going to be masked at Sunday’s concert. I know this isn’t your ideal choice. What’s the reasoning behind it?
A: According to the latest statistics provided for each county in the country by the U.S. Center for Disease Control, Fresno County is still listed as being a county where there is “Substantial” risk of transmission of Covid. Our board has established very cautious policies and protocols for our rehearsals and performances due to the special risks of transmission related to group singing activities. These include limiting participation of both singers and audiences to those who are fully vaccinated, including boosters if available; requiring masks for both performers and member of the audience; the use of only facilities that provide air circulation measures meeting the standards set by the CDC; limiting audience size to enable social distancing for those who desire it. Since most recent numbers indicate that Fresno County is now experiencing reductions in both transmission and new cases of Covid, we have slightly modified these requirements to allow wind and brass instrumentalists, and the four vocal soloists, to lower their masks when they are playing or singing.
Our board has announced that we will reconsider all of these policies and protocols as soon as Fresno County is classified by the CDC as being in the “Low” transmission category. We hope that occurs very soon!
Q: You’ll be singing the Mozart Requiem. Why this piece for your “return”?
A: We decided that our first choral performance after more than two years of stifling silence had to be a “blockbuster” that audiences have been eager to hear once again, and meets our desire that indoor choral performances should be one hour or less in length to allow for optimal air quality within the concert space. Finally, we wanted a work that clearly memorializes the losses in life, but also provides uplifting hope. The Mozart Requiem fulfills all of these considerations beautifully, and is a wonderful work to bring us “back to life” as an organization. We hope that the musical community in the Valley agrees!
Q: Even though the movie “Amadeus” was decades ago, it seems that it remains a primary source of information for people about Mozart. How well does the movie match up with reality?
A: Most fictional accounts, including movie scripts, add spice and imagination, and stretch the truth when they want to enhance historical facts to pack a particular punch. “Amadeus” was no exception. The movie imagines all sorts of magical settings that we have no ability to verify or even believe. But the music is enchanting, and we all love a concert that has a bit of Mozart on the program. I suspect that no one can listen to the “Confutatis” section of the Requiem without remembering the “death bed” scene in the movie where Mozart comes up with the dramatic contrast where the angry, judgmental male voices rant and rave, while the beautifully fragile female voices plea for sympathy and blessing.
So I guess we shouldn’t be surprised if some of us put a little of our own personal flavor and imagination into the music we love.
Q: You are 82 years old. Music has been part of your life since you were 2. Why do you think choral music — and harmonic choral music especially — is so important in a society?
A: Music has been an emotional part of most people’s lives. We sing our babies to sleep with lullabies. As children, we joyfully play singing games like “Ring Around the Rosie”, and raise our little voices with a host of other nursery rhymes set to music. Every culture has its folk music, and music reaches further back into our human history than do all of our written records. Hymns calm us down or stir us up in all of our faith-based settings. And we all find ourselves humming our favorite “ear worms” in whatever musical genre we have grown to love. I remember hearing music in my home and church, and watching my mother point out the musical line to me in the church hymnal before I could read words.
I took piano lessons as a young child, and added all of the benefits of an elementary school and high school education where music was an important part of both classroom and extra-curricular activity. We always had our “fight songs” and “school hymns” to sing at athletic events, and in my day, the national anthem was sung by everyone at an event, rather than being a special performance by a featured soloist. From being a member of our church choir, it was a small jump to joining the Fresno Community Chorus when my wife and I heard that it was beginning to rehearse Bach’s “Mass in B Minor” in 1966. Since then, we have sung in almost every Fresno choral group: The Community Chorus, Fresno Choral Artists, early music groups led at various by Gary Unruh, Doris Egg, Kristina Herrick, and in the grand choral concerts with the Fresno Philharmonic.
I won’t go into all of the choral concerts that we have attended throughout the world, except to say that I have regularly attended the Carmel Bach Festival since I was a grade schooler sitting in the front row of the Sunset School Auditorium in Carmel, with score in hand, looking up at James Schwabacher singing the Evangelist roles in the two Bach Passions. I could go on and on . . .
Q:I don’t think I’ve ever heard you sing as a soloist, but I’ve heard you speak as a narrator. I absolutely fell in love with your speaking voice after December’s Coro Piccolo concert. Have you ever considered recording books on CD? But, seriously, have you always had an appealing voice?
A: I never thought of myself as having a particularly appealing voice. In every choir that I have sung in, there were always tenors with voices far better than mine. I didn’t make the cut when I first auditioned for the San Jose State concert choir, but the director, a Mr. Erlandson (whom I had delivered newspapers to when I was a paper boy) did me a favor and suggested that I take voice lessons. I immediately signed up for “Beginning Voice” at SJS and was coached by Maureen Thompson, a wonderful vocal coach. She patiently taught me the ropes and I never suffered an audition failure after that! I have done periodic dramatic roles in Fresno over the years, such as being Rev. Hale in the Fresno Community Theater production of Arthur Miller’s “Crucible” many years ago when it met in a drafty theater that later became one of Fresno’s earliest “adult” movie houses.
I have been a frequent public speaker for both secular events and for many church-related services and functions. I do enjoy public speaking, and have seized every opportunity to “make my voice heard.” However, I haven’t received many invitations lately, so I guess the torch has somehow been passed on to the younger generation.
Q: Looking ahead, what does next season look like for the Fresno Master Chorale?
A: Since I am currently president of the Fresno Community Chorus, Inc. board, I guess I can reveal a few of our future hopes. It looks like our fall concert this autumn will be a performance of one of the “great” works: “Ein Deutsches Requiem” (or “A German Requiem”) by Johannes Brahms. To make it even more authentic this time, we will be singing it in the original German, which will be a first time for me. The end of next year’s season will be a gala concert with the Fresno Philharmonic Orchestra, and I will let them announce the works that will be performed at that concert. However, I do recall with great fondness, all of the masterpieces that we have sung with the Fresno Philharmonic. It has been a wonderful collaboration over the years!
Donald, I loved your interview with Alan Peters…he is a wonderful man with an infectious smile and upbeat nature! Lovely wife, too! Thanks! Kaye