By many accounts, Abraham Lincoln loved all sorts of music, from sentimental popular ballads of his day to opera. Music was a tonic for his melancholy soul, easing his burdens as president and lifting his spirits. Criticized for attending the opera while the Civil War raged, Lincoln’s response was terse: “The truth is, I must have a change of some sort, or die.”
In her research for the upcoming Ars Choralis performances of Lincoln: Lamp of Liberty, a tribute to our 16th president in words and music, the vocal ensemble’s longtime artistic director and conductor Barbara Pickhardt learned that Lincoln so loved attending musical performances that he would slip away at times to watch a show unseen from a corner of a concert hall. He wasn’t a musician, and apparently did not have much of a singing voice, but he loved to sing, joining in with runaway slaves singing at “contraband meetings” (escaped slaves newly affiliated with Union forces), getting teary-eyed on songs like “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.” And Lincoln so enjoyed Martha, a comedic opera of the day by Friedrich von Flotow, that he had portions of it performed during the festivities of his second inaugural.
Ars Choralis will include several arias from that opera when they present Lincoln: Lamp of Liberty on Saturday, March 17 at 7 p.m. at the Riverview Baptist Church, located at 240 Catherine Street in Kingston. The show will also be performed the following afternoon on Sunday, March 18 at 4 p.m. at the Overlook Methodist Church at 233 Tinker Street in Woodstock.
The Riverview Missionary Baptist Church choir Voices of Praise, led by Tonya Van Dermark, will join Ars Choralis. “Their voices are just spectacularly beautiful blending together creating harmonies,” says Pickhardt. “One of their soloists, Marge Knox, will sing with us on one piece, and I’m hoping the two choruses can sing together.”
Included on the program of music and spoken word are some of Lincoln’s favorite spirituals, freedom songs, fiddle tunes and sentimental ballads.
Pianist Andrea Shaut and percussionist Chris Earley will accompany the singers, with a trio made up of guitarist Greg Dinger, banjoist Jim Sullivan and fiddler Gilles Malkine providing the instrumentation for the Civil War-era tunes. Malkine will also narrate the excerpts from Lincoln’s letters, speeches and proclamations.
Tickets cost $18 for adults with advance purchase (nonrefundable) or $22 at the door. Children age 18 and under pay half-price. Tickets are available at www.arschoralis.org and from Mother Earth’s Storehouse in Kingston, DIG boutique in Saugerties and the Golden Notebook and Catskill Art and Office Supply in Woodstock.
Ars Choralis often performs in churches but is not a religious organization; its spirituality is of the broadest sense, its members devoted to celebrating the human spirit through the performance of choral music of all periods and styles. “We believe music has the power to transcend all barriers of language, culture, race, class and emotion to unite people facing a world of increasing factionalism and violence” is their byword.
Ars Choralis first formed in 1965, becoming the Mid-Hudson Madrigal Society by 1969. When Pickhardt began directing the choir in 1977, she gradually broadened the group’s musical focus, and by the late 1980s the chorus reverted to its original name and began to be known for its themed concerts on topics that resonate spiritually. Today Ars Choralis follows a three-concert season, performing in December, March and June, often in collaboration with area orchestras, chamber ensembles, dance and theater groups.
The approximately 50 members of Ars Choralis come from all walks of life. Their “day jobs” run the gamut of professions, but they have in common a love of singing and an inherent spirituality. One member of the group has been active since 1967, says Pickhardt, with a few others in the chorus since the 1970s. On the other hand, the group performing the Lincoln tribute will include one woman for whom it will be her first Ars Choralis performance.
The singers rehearse together for two hours every Sunday evening from September to June. They also commit to dress rehearsals, and sometimes extra rehearsals close to concert dates. “These are people really engaged in life who have made a commitment to this organization,” Pickhardt says. “They’re invested in bringing this musical message to the public, and they want to do it the best way possible. They work on the material at home; I send notes to them in advance and they mark their music. They all love music, love singing and – I’m speaking for them here, but I know it matters to them: They believe there is power in music and power in joining voices together.”
Auditions for membership in Ars Choralis are generally held in September, before the season begins, and sometimes prior to the March and June concerts. Singers are evaluated for vocal range, blending quality, tonal memory and familiarity with basic notation. Candidates are asked to sing simple scales, match pitches and demonstrate the ability to read simple music. Singing a solo is optional.
The group’s inclusivity is revealed in the wide range of its programming, says Pickhardt, “but sadly, not so much racially [in terms of its members]. For whatever reason, we’re not there yet. We certainly embrace every race and religion and persuasion of any kind, and treat one another with respect; but out of 50 people in the group, only three are African-Americans, and that’s a low percentage.”
The last concert of the 53rd season will be Bernstein Remembered, spanning five decades of Leonard Bernstein’s musical contributions to American culture and his compassion for people of all races and religions. (Those wishing to purchase tickets should note that the information on the website is not currently accurate: The original plan to have the shows at the Maverick Concert Hall in Woodstock had to be changed due to renovations going on at that location.) The shows will be held on June 9, most likely at the Overlook Methodist Church, and on June 10 at the Woodstock Jewish Congregation; visit the website or Facebook for up-to-date information closer to the concert dates.
When asked what inspired her to create a concert in honor of Abraham Lincoln, Pickhardt’s answer is a bit surprising. “I don’t have a clear answer for you on that… Maybe he was there in my mind because of the contrast to today: Lincoln was a man of such dignity and integrity, compassion and respect. He was eloquent in so many ways, and so humble. But I’m grateful that it came to be, because it does seem to be very relevant to today. Once I started working on the concert, doing the research and ‘living in the Lincoln world,’ it became really clear to me that he’s a reminder of the possibilities – the kind of people in our history who have led this country, and will again.”
Lincoln: Lamp of Liberty, Saturday, March 17, 7 p.m., Riverview Baptist Church, 240 Catherine Street, Kingston; Sunday, March 18, 4 p.m., Overlook Methodist Church, 233 Tinker Street, Woodstock; $18-$22; http://arschoralis.org.