On Whitney, GNHCC Grows Its Mission
Noah Blocker-Glynn raised his arms just slightly. Inside First Presbyterian Church, 100 bodies stood up straight, and leaned into a string of piano notes.
Come come come come/running on the water/Come come come come/Running on the water, the altos sang.
Water! We’re running on the water!/Water! We’re running on the water! Answered the sopranos, the section’s leaders puffing out their chests as they reached for the highest notes.
It was a recent Thursday night at the church, as members of the Greater New Haven Community Chorus (GNHCC) gathered for one of their first rehearsals of the new year. After recruiting new members in January, the chorus is working on how to grow its mission in 2018.
While the open enrollment period has technically ended for the semester, the group still welcomes singers at its weekly Thursday night rehearsals.
“We all come together just because we love to sing, and the choices of music teach all of us in a different way,” said GNHCC President Kathy McManus in an interview last week. “It brings us together in a very unique way.”
The GNHCC was founded in 1963, after a group of New Haveners expressed interest in a communal singing venture in the greater New Haven area. Unlike many other groups in the region, it is a non-audition model, with 101 current members across four vocal ranges (SATB), and a smaller chamber group for singers who choose to audition. Since the beginning of the year, McManus said it has welcomed "15 or 16" new members.
For several years, the group rehearsed out of the parish house at Center Church on the Green, located in downtown New Haven. But as it grew, parking became a problem, and members began to look for a new venue. Six years ago, the group migrated to First Presbyterian Church on Whitney Avenue, which accommodated its growing numbers. It still rehearses there each week.
Now a month into the latest semester, McManus said that the group is looking ahead, both to its spring concert and its future as an organization. In addition to semiannual concerts, it works to support other local nonprofits like the Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen (DESK), where members volunteer together several times a semester. It has started a new collaboration with the Hartt School Community Division Adult Chamber Choir in Hartford, where it will perform later this month. And, McManus said jokingly, it has fully joined the 21st century, with an online campaign that includes member testimonials and outreach on new social media channels.
But, McManus said, she and the group also acknowledge a need to continue diversifying membership—a task she said she’s excited to take on. In the past several years, she’s watched as the group has taken in several Asian and Asian-American members, attracted international students and staff from nearby universities, brought in younger members, and listened as new languages pop up in conversation before and after rehearsals.
And yet, “we are keenly aware of the few Black members” that the group has, she said. There are discussions with the board and with the outreach team, comprising entirely volunteers. In 2009, the group co-sponsored a gospel music workshop with Varick Memorial AME Zion Church, which culminated in a benefit concert but no sustained collaboration or communication between the two groups.
The following year, members of the GNHCC teamed up with the music department at Hill Regional High School to teach students about choral music, working in music classes and performing Antonio Vivaldi's Gloria at one school assembly.
“The students were sitting in the front rows totally in awe, mesmerized by what they were hearing,” McManus recalled in an email. “To this day, anyone who sang that day will tell you that this was so very gratifying.”
McManus said that the group hoped to continue its relationship with the school. But the school’s music director left, and “communication was lost.” With new volunteers in charge of outreach, she said that she hopes to see those kinds of collaborations grow with interest in the group.
McManus added that outreach efforts are tied to the group’s own musical path forward. While she said the group “tries not to be too political … it’s just not who we are,” it has expanded its repertoire in the past two years to span genres, with women composers, multiple languages, and globe-spanning works.
“A lot of this music is a little bit lighter than we've done [historically],” she said of this semester’s programming. “We try to mix it up. It seemed to be more appealing to the audience than doing a lot of masses.”
Back in the belly of the church—the group splits up between two rooms, and then comes back together—members were putting that mantra to use. The spring’s repertoire is a mix of old and new, European and non-canonical. Mozart’s buoyant Regina Coeli rubs shoulders with Gwyneth Walker’s “How Can I keep from Singing?” and Jim Papoulis' celebratory “Juntos,” from his Sounds of a Better World project. There are more bouncy, contemporary standards including from such musicians as Dolly Parton and Simon & Garfunkel.
In the rows and rows of moving mouths were singers like Ray Townsend, a consultant from Wethersfield. After moving to Connecticut from Ohio, he had decided to give singing a shot for the first time in 16 years—the length of time since he’s left college, and had to have multiple throat surgeries. The only member of his family not in a chorus, Townsend said the non-audition model caught his interest. On the final night of the semester’s open call, he took the plunge and joined.
“If you look at some of the choir websites, it’s like: You can only come in if you’re a professional. It’s very, very particular,” he said. “This was definitely the least intimidating.”
Or Kim Worthington, a transplant from Houston, Tex. who moved to New Haven a year ago with her husband, and found that “I was kind of bored” doing data management work from home. Two of her friends were in the GNHCC and encouraged her to try it out.
They have guides to help them along—like Sara Schaefer, a neurologist at Yale-New Haven Hospital who has been part of the group for a year. When she arrived in New Haven six years ago, she had emailed several local chorus groups asking if they’d let her join with a medical resident’s jam-packed, unpredictable schedule. All of them said no. So when she became a fellow, and a friend from her parenting group suggested GNHCC, she gave it a try.
"It's very warm," she said. "I'm in the chamber choir too, and it's really wonderful to have that smaller group that's more challenging ... but still with the same people you know and with Noah [Blocker-Glynn].
As sopranos and altos ran through Papoulis’ “Juntos,” Schaefer swayed along with the words, nodding to members new and old as pianist Barbara Robbins worked through pronunciation.
Caminar solo/lado a lado/Tenemos esperanza/Levantemos lentamente
Walking alone, hand in hand/We have hope/Raise us up, slowly.