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Marietta Pritchard: What a society this choral group has been

My visit to the exhibit has shown my recollection of that time to be a little foggy, because what I had remembered was a small chorus — maybe 20 singers — rehearsing in the dingy recesses of Northampton’s First Church. I was 22 at the time, and, having come from singing in a college’s large and youthful chorus, my impression was that the group was small, and that most of the singers were distinctly elderly.

The library’s exhibit proves otherwise on both counts. It displays a mimeographed list of members for that year and I see that there were 52 of us, many more than I’d remembered, and that more than a few were around my age — callow youths.

So much for memory. I’ll still make my case for the dinginess of the space.

The library exhibit, housed in its sunny atrium, includes programs, photographs, lists and newspaper articles from over the years and through the leadership of nine conductors. Among the more striking collections are several scrapbooks of photos from the group’s 1977 tour to Romania, one of several foreign concertizing tours while Carol Gotwals was in charge. The scrapbooks contain many photos of handsome monuments, people in quaint national costumes and smiling groups of singers and hosts. But there are also a few pieces of writing. One of them caught my eye. It’s a limerick titled “Apology from the Tenors.”

The first note of the piece was an A

But I’m very sorry to say

We slithered and swooped

And hollered and hooped

And landed quite flat on our A.

After that one year with Henry Mishkin — whose son Peter sings in the bass section of the current chorus — I did lots of other singing in Amherst, then a few years ago, returned home to the Hampshire Choral Society, now numbering 160 singers, rehearsing in a comfortable, well-lighted space in the Northampton Senior Center, and directed by Allan Taylor. His informed, witty and focused direction has led us through well- and lesser-known choral masterworks, from the sonorous and intricate beauties of J.S. Bach to the brash theatrics of William Walton.

Last year we performed the American premiere of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Cambridge Mass.” We even made it onto YouTube when our 2009 performance of Handel’s “Messiah” was augmented by the arrival on stage of a sweet, but distinctly non-musical dachshund. The contralto completed her solo, “He Was Despised,” without a hitch, then another of the soloists calmly handed the dog off to an audience member.

Allan, unruffled, verbally quick on his feet as always, and never one to be upstaged, turned briefly to a delighted audience and said: “And I was worried about cellphones!”

A number of the choristers, more faithful through the years than I, have sung with the choral society for many decades. Among them is Mary Cay Andrikidis, the group’s current president.

Now in her 40th year with the group, she has served in a variety of official roles. To a relative newcomer, she is recognizable as the amazing attendance-taker who remembers the faces and names of all 160 singers. Starting out as an alto, she became one of the group’s female tenors during rehearsals for the Berlioz Requiem under Carol Gotwals. Tenors, as everyone who sings in choruses knows, are a scarce item, always in demand — and always forgiven their occasional missteps. (See limerick above.)

•••

On May 19, at 3 p.m. in the UMass Fine Arts Center, the chorus will perform its 60th anniversary concert, an all-Beethoven program, featuring the composer’s Mass in C. Also on the program are the short cantata “Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage,” and a chorus from “The Ruins of Athens.” The concert will open with the “Consecration of the House” overture.

Marietta Pritchard can be reached at mppritchard@comcast.net

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