The Annapolis Chorale – How we got here!
By Ned Criscimagna & Katherine Hilton
Without the United States Naval Academy, the Annapolis Chorale might not exist. In 1973, James A. Dale, then assistant director of musical activities at the academy, saw a cultural void in the Annapolis area and decided to fill it. He called together a group of individuals who enjoyed singing and formed a choral group. This was the first incarnation of the Annapolis Chorale with Mr. Dale as its director.
The Chorale’s first-ever concert was held in May 1974. Chorale archives describe the event as having “almost as many people in the chorus as in the audience”, but with that first concert, the group began to establish its reputation as an up-and-coming musical organization.
The Annapolis Chorale was officially born in September 1974 when the group adopted a constitution, elected officers and approved by-laws.
With the excellent buzz that followed the group’s first concert, the Chorale quickly attracted more talented singers and began to expand its repertoire to include both classical and semi-classical choral works.
During Mr. Dale’s tenure as director, Donna Jean Dixon, then the minister of music at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Annapolis, signed on as assistant director and accompanist. Over the next several seasons, the Chorale performed such classic works as Vivaldi’s Gloria, Faure’s Requiem, and works by Haydn, Handel, Bach, Poulenc, Bernstein and Thompson.
In February 1976, the Chorale joined forces with the Laurel Oratorio and the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra for a powerful and moving presentation of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony under Leon Fleisher’s direction. The group also performed “pops” concerts at the Annapolis Fine Arts Festival.
In December 1976, Mark Tardue took over as music director when Mr. Dale resigned due to increasing outside commitments. Mr. Tardue’s two years of leadership took the Chorale through an important growth phase and to new levels of achievement.
One signature concert, in April 1977, featured the chorale – by now with 70 singers – with an orchestra of 35 and Ms. Dixon at the organ, in a sold-out performance of Mozart’s Requiem. Critics acclaimed the performance as “… intense and elegant … the chorus sand with tremendous drive and conviction … (it) carried out a passage of supreme beauty in the grief beyond tears of Lachrymosa.”
After two very successful concerts in December 1977, Mr. Tardue resigned because he could no longer devote the amount of time to the Chorale he would like during this crucial period of growth. Raphael Metzger stepped in as director after being recommended to the board by Mr. Tardue. Lawrence Neeck was also appointed accompanist for the ensuing season.
Mr. Metzger was followed in 1978 by Ava M. Shields, who would conduct the chorale until 1983. With her background and experience in vocal training and oratorio singing, Mrs. Shields was a wonderful teacher for Chorale singers, imparting the finer points of choral singing and vocal technique. With Mrs. Shields conducting, the chorale reached its highest membership ever: 135 singers.
In 1983, Donald Wiggins became the group’s Music Director. A noted area soloist himself, Mr. Wiggins had sung with the Chorale prior to becoming music director. Mr. Wiggins’ goals as director were to increase the number of chorale performances each year from three to four and to build membership. In his two years with the Chorale, he accomplished both.
When Mr. Wiggins left the chorale in 1984, the Board of directors selected J. Ernest Green as the Chorale’s conductor and music director. That decision would bring the Chorale its longest-serving music director and a period of unprecedented growth, recognition, and musical innovation.
From the day of his arrival 25 years ago, Mr. Green has infused the Chorale with his enthusiasm and genius for innovative programming. Mr. Green has guided the Chorale to a reputation as one of Maryland’s finest performing ensembles, known for artistic excellence and musical creativity.
Under his leadership, the Chorale has performed to rave reviews three times at Carnegie Hall, appeared on Maryland Public Television and has been called one of Maryland’s finest choral groups. Its repertoire now includes a diverse and broad range of music, including Orff’s Carmina Burana, Lloyd Webber’s Requiem, Richard Einhorn’s Voices of Light (accompanying the silent film “The Passion of Joan of Arc”), and Strauss’s Die Fledermaus.
On the lighter side of the musical spectrum, Mr. Green established the popular Broadway in Concert series that has included performances of The Sound of Music, The Fantasticks, Oklahoma!, South Pacific, Brigadoon, HMS Pinafore, Guys & Dolls, Fiddler on the Roof, Camelot, Show Boat and The Secret Garden. The Chorale’s annual Celebration of Christmas has become an Annapolis tradition, officially kicking off the holiday season for Annapolis and Anne Arundel communities. One of Mr. Green’s other notable successes is a concert series at St. Anne’s Episcopal Church, which brings to the area such performers as The Washington Symphonic Brass, Kennedy Center Chamber Players and other regional musical ensembles and solo artists.
With a strong belief in community partnerships, the Chorale has performed concerts around the area, from Maryland Hall to the Railroad Museum in Chesapeake Beach, and Anne Arundel Community College to Charlestown Village in northern Baltimore. Mr. Green and the Chorale are also active in the community, supporting with concerts the work of Pathways and the Beans and Bread Soup Kitchen, Hospice of the Chesapeake, the Maritime Heritage Museum, the Junior League and many sister arts organizations.
At 39 years old, and with Mr. Green at the helm, the Chorale has achieved a singular sound only imagined in 1978. Critics have praised Chorale concerts as “spectacular” and “Making an indelible mark on the city’s musical community.” Of Mr. Green, they have noted that the area “owes [him] a great musical debt.”
As the Annapolis Chorale opens a new season, the future looks bright. Mr. Green pledges to continue to offer area audiences music with no boundaries. “Music is such a powerful force,” he says. “We want to offer our audiences different kinds of music, some they know and love, and some new music that challenges them. The point is to reach out to everyone with all kinds of music.”