BCS Benefit Gala
Sunday, September 6, 2009, 6:30pm
Unitarian Universalist Church
BCS Benefit Gala
By Peter Jacobi, H-T Reviewer
September 6, 2009
With a gala concert and benefit this evening at the Unitarian Universalist Church, the Bloomington Chamber Singers (BCS) celebrate 40 years of offering choral music to the area and 20 years that they’ve done so under their conductor, Gerald Sousa. It is an occasion for them to be proud of and for those of us who’ve benefited from their efforts to be grateful.
The gifted and committed Sousa has made this group of non-professionals into an ensemble capable of grand performances, always astoundingly well prepared in technical terms and suffused with admirable sensitivity. Case in point: last spring’s remarkable go at the Bach St. Matthew Passion, an accomplishment that far surpassed reasonable expectations. But then, that’s what Maestro Sousa and his charges have done time and again, thereby adding significantly to Bloomington’s rich music scene.
Sousa’s assistant director at the BCS, and an alto within it, Julie Grindle, says the Bach was “a high point for the group. I think that was really evident in the performance. It’s been my privilege to work closely with Gerry, and I have become a better musician because of him . . His talent for leading a choir is only surpassed by the sensitivity, integrity and thoughtfulness that he brings to musical preparation.”
For Sousa, the 20-year association has obviously been a labor of love for the music, the task and his singers. “I am gifted with a group,” he says, “that understands high-level performance must move beyond singing the right notes at the right time. I am able to explore the works with the singers on a number of levels . . In rehearsal, we explore not only the music itself but the meaning and sounds of the text, the historical and social context of the work and the structural elements that form its architecture.
“Rehearsing, then, for us, is often in layers,” he explains. “One must first be able to sing the right words to the right notes at the rime time in the right intonation, and so forth. But then, one must understand the meaning and syntax of the language, the larger intent of the work, the tonal and harmonic devices that the composer uses to bring the text to life, and the reason for variances in dynamics, tone color and timbre. I’m notorious for passing out color charts of the works we study to help everyone understand the overall form of the piece and the various compositional devices the composer uses.”
Barrie Zimmerman, a tenor in the BCS since 1994, calls rehearsals with Sousa “demanding, challenging, fun, educational and highly rewarding. One has to stay on one’s toes for two-and-one-half hours, but it takes one’s mind off everything else. Gerry has continually demonstrated a totally unselfish desire to share his knowledge of music.” As a result, says Zimmerman, “Very likely, BCS is the best community chorus — non-professional — in a wide geographic part of the Midwest.”
Lisa Kurz, who joined the sopranos in 1993, says, “Gerry is a stickler. He wants not only every note but every vowel in every word, every dynamic and expressive nuance to be exactly right. . In general, rehearsals are fun. We’re not always serious by any means, but we all know that we’re there to learn the music and to sing it as well as we can. Artistically, Gerry’s contribution has been enormous . . He has brought us stability. To have the same musical director for 20 years has definitely contributed to our growth as a musical group.”
Jason Siegel, a relative newcomer to the BCS with four years of service, says Sousa is “wonderful as a leader,” someone who has “high expectations of us, musically and professionally and makes it clear that his expectations are only going to get higher.”
However, Siegel continues, “rather than being intimidating, it feels quite comforting and encouraging knowing that we have someone who believes in us so much.”
“For me,” says Sousa, “performing each piece of great music is a transient love affair. There is the first instinctive and visceral attraction to the work. Then, there is the wonderful and sometimes confusing process of getting to know the work in depth, during which I grow increasingly attached as I unravel the work’s various threads. Then, there is the pre-performance period during which I am usually completely infatuated — in love — with the music. Then, there is the performance which is the wonderful culmination of all that we have shared over many months together. Finally, there is the inevitable postpartum when I see a close friend slip away from being with me every day. One must love what one performs.”
Ruth Sanders, a member of the soprano contingent since 1980, long before Sousa became music director, notes that he was the first to stay with the group.
“Most of the leaders before were graduate students in choral conducting who left for professional positions after finishing their degrees. Gerry lives in Bloomington and wants to stick with us, and we very much want to keep him with us. The continuity in having one director for 20 years is an important part of our success.”
Sanders says being in the BCS “has been like having an ongoing weekly class in musical technique and music history, combined with anatomy, physiology, philosophy and whatever else comes up.”
She points to the “fine music” as a major BCS contribution to the community, along with “the opportunity it affords to non-professionals, those of us with day jobs who have no intention of ever being professional musicians, to sing serious music in a serious way. We all take our task very personally and put hours into the preparation of each concert and we love that the community turns out and seems to love the concerts.”
Bernadette Zoss, a six-year veteran and alto, expresses thanks to Sousa and her colleagues for giving her a “choral home.” As chair of the BCS’s long-range planning committee, she names financial stability “as the biggest challenge facing us. We’re self-sustaining, and we’ve been able to maintain a small financial cushion to weather disruptions like the current weak economy, but it’s difficult to identify funding sources even in good economic times. Performing the kind of music we do requires paying for orchestra personnel, scores and more, which is very costly. Each member pays annual dues, and we buy our own copies of the music we perform. Ticket sales only cover about a third of our annual budget. The balance must be made up by individual and corporate donations, selling ads in programs and fundraising efforts.”
Sousa is bullish. He says the BCS commands “an enviable position,” with an “efficient, effective self-governing organization” that “rests on a solid financial foundation. We have very little attrition, play to full houses, and are able to mount virtually any piece in the repertoire. We have a bevy of generous corporate and individual donors that underwrite our seasons. Whatever success we now enjoy owes its existence solely to the unfailing passion for excellence in music that all of us share.”
The maestro sums up that he “would like to see the group bring its music making to a wider audience for I believe the music we perform needs to be heard.”
That’s a sentiment I echo, and may there be many more happy birthdays for the Bloomington Chamber Singers.