Among the eight “Whereases” in the Town of Woodstock resolution to honor the choral group Ars Choralis for its fiftieth year of performances:
“Whereas, Ars Choralis is one of four choruses in the United States recognized for its concerts of peace and social justice by the national periodical Chorus America; and…
“Whereas, Ars Choralis has given free concerts offering hope, solace and compassion during crises and disasters;…”
…therefore, supervisor Jeremy Wilber shall issue a proclamation celebrating the span of the group’s cultural contributions.”
The chorus will kick off its fiftieth year with a free concert on New Year’s Eve at 7 p.m. at the Old Dutch Church in Kingston, reprising their “Messengers of Peace” program. Inspirational songs will be interspersed with the words of peace activists from around the world.
Ars Choralis conductor Barbara Pickhardt mused on the “deep and long perspective” afforded her by 44 years with the choir. Founded as Ars Choralis in 1965, the group had become the Mid-Hudson Madrigal Society by 1969, when Pickhardt began to sing along. Among their performances were a series of Elizabethan feasts at the Beekman Arms in Rhinebeck, the Depuy Canal House in High Falls, and other settings. In 1972, Dr. Richard Olsen, head of the music department at Ulster Country Community College, took over as director and began to shift the focus away from madrigals and toward sacred music of the Renaissance and Baroque periods, while expanding into venues such as Olana and the Maverick Concert Hall. Chorus members also offered programs in local schools.
Once Pickhardt began directing the choir in 1977, she gradually broadened the musical range, from early chant to gospel to contemporary experimental. In the late 80s, the name Ars Choralis was restored, and the group went on to perform themed concerts such as “Music in Desperate Times: Remembering the Women’s Orchestra of Birkenau,” about women who survived the Holocaust by playing in an orchestra. The chorus performed the “Carmina Burana” among the stone artistry of Opus 40, and they created a piece called “Wings of Hope,” the story of the Berlin Airlift, with the help of swing dancers, a big band, and the words of Airlift personnel.
“What our chorus is known for right now is the overarching idea of human harmony,” said Pickhardt. “It’s about who we are as human beings. It’s important that these stories go on and open up a little bit of consciousness, get people to live their lives a little differently.”
Raised in northern Minnesota, Pickhardt recalls that music was always a part of her life. “I took piano lessons, although we lived in poverty, which didn’t seem like poverty, because I had wonderful parents and a community of people who cared for each other. I was lucky to go to college at a time when girls from my lower class didn’t necessarily go to college. I did my Masters degree in my fifties on the East Coat. I look at all of the things I’ve been handed all my life, and I feel just plain lucky.”
As a singer, she lives in awe of the way a disparate group of people can come into vocal harmony. “Somehow we’re all experiencing those same sound waves, and we’re creating part of it. There’s a moment when you know everything’s right that’s worth more than anything else — that moment you know something beautiful is happening — not the music, which can be beautiful or can be hard and driving, but the experience.”
Conducting is a different process. “It goes back to the seed of the idea,” said Pickhardt, who may work on a project for a year, or in the case of “Desperate Times,” ten years. As the different pieces of a concert get pulled together, it’s not until at or near the end that she gets the sense of success. “There is an indescribable understanding that ‘this is working.’ I see it in the faces of the people I’m conducting, and I feel it in the audience. When we did ‘Desperate Times’ at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, there were over 1100 people. For an hour and 45 minutes, there was not a sound in the audience, no rustling — just stillness. We knew they were captivated.”
When that concert ended, she had to turn around and light a candle for all the people who had ever suffered at the hands of another human being. Before she was able to speak, she had wipe away the tears that were rolling down her cheeks. That kind of transport, she said, is rare. “Sometimes when I’m conducting, it feels mechanical. Other times it feels like I’m not doing anything, like something else is conducting.”
“Messengers of Peace” is a program that has been reinvented several times as a response to large-scale crises such as the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks, the earthquake in Haiti, the Pacific tsunami. “It’s a free concert, but people are inclined to give something,” said Pickhardt. “Everything given this time will go to Helping Hands Soup Kitchen in Kingston.”
The concert will include music by Mendelssohn, the Shaker hymn “Bow Down Low,” Pink Floyd’s “On the Turning Away,” and other pieces. Members of the chorus, several young people, and volunteer supreme Victoria Langling will read quotes from recent Nobel Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, Martin Luther King, Jr., the Dalai Lama, Walt Whitman, and others. One of the singers, who has a one-year-old son, will open the performance with Eve Merriman’s line, “I dream of giving birth to a child who will ask, ‘Mother, what was war?’”
The 50th anniversary year will be celebrated with concerts highlighting the history of Ars Choralis, including a revival of “Desperate Times,” presented April 24 and 25. The Historical Society of Woodstock will host “Merry Madrigals in May,” on May 23, featuring roving minstrels and an Ars Choralis anniversary display in the museum. Mozart’s “Requiem” will be performed at Maverick on June 13 and 14, and December will see the the 20th Annual Welcome Yule concert.
In reflecting on the message of the Ars Choralis projects, Pickhardt remarked, “I think we all want something better for generations to come, to figure out how to get along. We know it’s hard. We get stuck, and it’s hard to pull out of it — but it’s possible.”++
Ars Choralis will present “Messengers of Peace,” a New Year’s Eve Free Peace Concert, on Wednesday, December 31, at 7 p.m. at Old Dutch Church, 272 Wall Street, Kingston. Inspirational spoken words will be illuminated by music performed by the chorus, two cellists, piano, oboe and percussion. The concert will be narrated by members of Ars Choralis and special guest Victoria Langling. Free-will donations will go to the Helping Hands Soup Kitchen in their entirety.