Festival Chorus: Community in Song


"What if we tried Mozart's Requiem?" That's the question Music Department Chair Mary Marcell pondered in 1995, three years into her 28-year tenure at Rye Country Day School. Try it she did, and the rest is history. The Festival Chorus Concert, an annual RCDS community event, has been bringing together a 150-person choir comprising students, faculty, staff, alumni, parents, and friends of the School ever since. This year, Festival Chorus marks an exciting milestone of 25 years of song and community.

"I don't think there are very many projects that we get to start and see through for 25 years," says Ms. Marcell. The power of the 25th anniversary is not lost on her, but it's about more than time. It's about what keeps something going with such vigor. For Ms. Marcell, it's about community. The Chorus has a core group of participants that have sung in all 24, and this year they will sing again in the 25th. The make-up of the Chorus is also important; there is something deeply meaningful about an all-community undertaking. Pair that with music, whose selection has evolved to represent a theme each year, and what results is a bit of magic and a whole lot of beautiful singing. "Parents often start because they want to sing with their child and then stay on after their child graduates. It is especially moving when alumni come back, because it rekindles the connection that we had as a student and teacher. Festival Chorus is a wonderful example of how things can remain important to us throughout the different seasons of our lives," says Ms. Marcell.

This year's 25th Festival Chorus, 1,000 Beautiful Things: A Concert of Celebration, will feature compositions by Dan Forrest, Paul Halley, Craig Hella Johnson, Annie Lenox, John Rutter, and Gwyneth Walker, among others. The concert will also include a special new commission by Rob Mathes in honor of the 25th anniversary. Rehearsals are underway and Ms. Marcell looks forward to packed auditorium at Purchase College on Sunday, January 26, at 3 p.m. Click here to purchase tickets.

Over the years, Festival Chorus has alternated between full-length work concerts and thematically-based collections of pieces. The orchestra size changes yearly based on the repertoire, some years it has been as small as a five-person band and others it has been a full thirty-person orchestra. And, when a theme guides each concert, there is a new layer of poignancy to the experience. For example, for 2011's This I Believe Concert, which was based on the former NPR show about listeners' everyday-life-guiding core beliefs, students in the choir along with some parents and faculty wrote short essays on something they believed. Ms. Marcell collected the essays, searched for common themes, and then paired them with music. English teachers Ginny Black and Jenny Heath even worked this project into their 8th grade and AP English curricula. At the concert, 35 participants read their essays, and the choir sang a musical response. What resulted was a personal and powerful performance for both the singers and the audience.

In selecting the music, Ms. Marcell enjoys the challenge of showcasing diversity of composition and genres, and the range of musical aptitude within the RCDS community. "I like pairing genres that are disparate. When we did Faure's Requiem in 2012, we paired it with I'll Fly Away, a song traditionally used in the second line funeral in New Orleans. The concert went from a full orchestra to a bluegrass band." Of course, the banjo player in the bluegrass band was an RCDS parent who was also singing in the Chorus.

Each concert has a story that becomes etched in the memory of the participants. For Ms. Marcell, Let My Love Be Heard in 2018 was a concert that was especially personal. Her mother passed away during rehearsals. The music was cathartic, and the comfort of the community support that Ms. Marcell received from the choir has remained with her. "It is hands down one of the greatest gifts in my life to have a group of people that is willing to go on this journey with me every year."

Singing is indeed a gift. On the first day of choir at RCDS, Ms. Marcell shows students a powerpoint entitled "Why Sing" that explains the health benefits of singing including lowering blood pressure, unifying breathing, and alleviating stress. There are also the benefits of empathy and collaboration. "Choral music is one of the few things you can't do by yourself; it is a representation of how much we need each other," remarks Ms. Marcell. And, of course, she stresses to students, "It is also just really fun."

When Festival Chorus rehearsal season kicks off every October, there is an undeniable positive energy around the Dunn Performing Arts Center. Old friends look forward to seeing each other again and new participants experience the joy of connecting with the greater RCDS community. For 25 years, participants have shared how much they treasure the Chorus. For some, it's the joy of being able to see their children perform, for others it's the excitement of performing with their children and then staying on until their children return to join them once again. What remains constant is the music and the sense of connection to something bigger. "This group is a community. We are bonded," shares Ms. Marcell.

Milestones conjure nostalgia and retrospection but they also urge us to look forward. When asked about the future of Festival Chorus, Ms. Marcell says, "I hope it will live on and I hope people will have wonderful memories about each one." For her, the concert's core of community is in fact the secret to its longevity and its future, "It makes everyone feel included, welcomed, and challenged. It can encourage people to think in a more compassionate way." So, to those core regulars and to anyone interested in joining the chorus for the first time, Ms. Marcell says, with a glint in her eye, "Same time next year."

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