The Annapolis Chorale Keeps Music Alive

As the Annapolis Chorale celebrates its 30th anniversary season, friends and critics agree that the group could not have a better man at the helm than J. Ernest Green. His genuine enthusiasm and innovative programming have brought the group to a place of prominence as one of Maryland's finest choruses. Its broad repertoire includes classic, pop, Broadway, sacred and film music. Under his leadership, the Annapolis Chorale has made appearances at Carnegie Hall and on Maryland Public Television.

Green was born in Baltimore but grew up in Cleveland and spent his summers in and around Annapolis. He completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Toledo where he pursued trombone and conducting. He received his master's degree in 1983 from the Peabody Conservatory of Music. "Music is always something that I did," he says, "as far back as I can remember. I never made a conscious decision to go into music. For me, it was in the gene pool somewhere." His parents were both choral musicians. Green, however, did less vocal music and more band and orchestra work, all the way into graduate school. He currently serves as a cover conductor for the National Symphony Orchestra and remains in demand as a guest conductor throughout America and Europe.

While serving in the very prestigious position of orchestra conducting assistant at Peabody, Green was asked if he would perform the same duties for the chorus. His first inclination was to refuse. "I was with an incredible musical mind and an amazing [orchestra] teacher," he says. "I knew [the choral conductor] would be a different kind of mentor. But I also knew this was a very passionate musician, that it would be a great learning experience. I discovered almost immediately---to my total surprise and joy later on---that I absolutely loved working with singers."

The opportunity with Annapolis Chorale presented itself while Green was doing his doctorate work. "It was time for me to be up and out," he says, "a good place to try my wings." He figured he would stay on for three, maybe four years. Now, 18 years later, he recalls, "I just felt like this was where I needed to be. I love being here."

Green describes the people who were involved in the Chorale when he first came on board. "They went along with my crazy notions about what needed to happen to build an organization like this," he says. He had taken over another chorus at the same time and it did not want to go in the direction he had envisioned. Annapolis, however, went right along.

"That's what made it special and that's what makes it work today. We work together and they give me the benefit of the doubt. When I come up with something that is absolute lunacy, they go along with me. Sometimes those are the things that end up being the turning point for artist and organization. Those are really important times. Sometimes just shaking things up a little bit is, in and of itself, a good thing to do. It's scary because it means that everything you think can be relied upon is up for grabs. My experience has been that if you can really go for it, and you can move decisively in a new direction, sometimes it is just the thing you need. It keeps people on their toes."

This concert season will continue Green's tradition of creativity. "The Messiah," for example, is performed every Christmas. Last year, the Chorale did a re-creation of one of the performances that Handel himself had conducted, including some parts that are rarely heard today. This year, it will be different. "We are trying to keep the piece alive, not just by virtue of the fact that it has a life of its own, but taking a fresh look at it," he says. "In the spring, we will hook poetry and music together. Let's make this fun, not something where you are going into a museum to hear a museum piece. [Let's] keep it a bit quirky."

A typical series includes approximately eight concerts, with the exception of December, when there could be as many as 22 or 23 performances. "We almost all drop dead by the time it's over," says Green. "It's absolutely crazy!"

In order to maintain some degree of health and sanity in the organization, small groups are formed and sent out so the same people aren't singing every time. The problem then becomes getting singers not to come out. "I literally have to say, 'No, you can't sing!'" says Green. "It is fun. We sing in crazy places---outdoors at the Chesapeake Railroad Museum in Chesapeake Beach or standing next to the rutabagas at Graul's Market. That is how we pay a lot of bills---singing Christmas carols. Over the years, we have built up a steady clientele."

The Chorale is always looking for ways to raise money. Most funding comes through grants, gifts and ticket sales. Membership dues from the singers barely cover the cost of rehearsals. When Green took over the chorus 18 years ago, there were 54 singers. Now, the roster includes 189 names. "We will probably sing most concerts this year with about 170 voices," says Green. Some people say the chorus is too big but Green maintains that the size is relative. The goal is to make a good vocal product. "The Chorale is at a very interesting point," he says. "To a certain extent, the question of size will come up. I don't think we're too big yet. To stand in the middle of that, with 179 of your closest friends, singing full tilt, it's unbelievable! It's amazing! It's a gorgeous sound!"

Chorus member Katherine Hilton attributes the group's rapid growth in part to its flourishing reputation for performing a more difficult and more varied repertoire and, in part, to Green's personal charisma. "We get a lot from him at every rehearsal," she says. "He gives 110 percent-not just teaching us how to master a specific piece, but how to interpret and how to sing. During rehearsal, he spends a lot of time with individual sections, trying to shape the sound they are making. We learn about texture and how to get there."

Prospective chorus members do not have to be professional singers but should know how to read music at a very rudimentary level. Green does a basic screening audition for new people to see what their basic skills are. "I want to see what your ears do," he says, "what natural instincts and abilities are there. I always sort of approach what you don't have and I will find a way to give it to you through my rehearsals."

Keeping things fresh and new is the charge which Green has given himself. "I don't ever want to go through the motions of making music," he says. "We have to find ways to keep this alive for the singers and the audience. The challenge is what makes it fun."

We need music; we need the arts, Green maintains. "We, today, are so hyper-programmed about our work, our families and the way that we live our lives. What the arts do is sort of open our pores a little and let the humanity rush back in for a minute." Art, he says, takes us away from the troubles and stress of the every day, the computer and the PDA. It sometimes pricks the skin a little bit and makes us think---sometimes, it lifts our spirits. "Stand in the parking lot of a major corporation," he says. "Every car would have the stereo blaring at the end of the day, all pretending to be Bruce Springsteen. Everybody is the boss. What I do is let you hear live musicians do it. That is why it must go on. It reminds us that we are human beings.

"I feel like I am very lucky that I am able to do what I am able to do and do it with such wonderful musicians-players, singers, other artists," says Green. "I just love what I'm doing, and I plan on having more fun. The first 18 years were merely a warmup act. You ain't seen nothing yet!"


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Powerboat Show
Sailboat Show
Renaissance Festival
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County Fair

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