Recollections by Charter Member, Sara McDaris

As avid listeners of choral music, we feel fortunate to participate in this most rewarding activity. It was not always so in our community. Prior to 1998, only church choirs and the Huntsville Community Chorus offered choral singing, along with developing musical programs at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. But now, twenty years later, several excellent choral groups exist in the Tennessee Valley.

Late 1998 saw the beginning of the Huntsville Master Chorale. A former local church choir director, Dr. Gene Brasher, returned to the city and began creating a choral group named The Eugene Brasher Chorale. His return was timely. Dr. Royce Boyer, retiring from UAH, had just brought to an end his choral group, The Twickenham Singers. Dr. Brasher collected singers both from his former church and from that extinct local group. Immediately he had a fine chorale.

The group performed its first concert on February 19, 1999. Dr. Brasher selected the best of centuries of church music, along with his favorites from heart-warming spirituals of the South. The performances of the Chorale progressed grandly, a new voice in the community. The development of the group was a bit slower. Led by musicians who wanted to sing but with few skills on the building of organizations, this part proved to be more difficult and slower. Still the Chorale blossomed as a good group and sang with pride at concerts.

Pianist Sharon Keffer joined the Chorale in April of 2005, and has continued as accompanist up to the present. In October of that year, Mr. Handy Avery became Associate Conductor; an unknown blessing then, for Dr. Brasher decided to really retire at the end of that year, and Mr. Avery was right there to be Interim Conductor as the Chorale sought out a permanent replacement.

Since Dr. Brasher requested the removal of his name from the group, singers had the opportunity to name it themselves. After they made suggestions, a democratic vote was taken and the winner was The Huntsville Master Chorale. It was a selection that set standards and challenged the singers.

The Master Chorale owes much to the generosity and willingness of Mr. Avery. Having a full-time job as Minister of Music at a local church and with other natural obligations, he still accepted the request that he become interim director while the Chorale found someone for the permanent position. His immediate help stabilized the group and assured its continuance.

Mr. Avery began his work in the spring of 2006, and his concerts were May 15th and 16th of that year. Those evenings became exhilarating experiences; with the title of A Night of Precious New Gems and Priceless Heirlooms, he chose the venerable and beautiful Russel Erskine Ballroom for the performances. Once again that Belle Epoque space rang with Brahms’ Four Gypsy Songs, his Neue Liebeslieder” and PDQ Bach’s Liebslieder Polkas S2/4 (lovingly edited by Peter Schickele).

Meanwhile, Chorale members were steadfast in searching for a permanent leader. The choice became Mr. Tom Dooling, an exceptional music director in the city. His first concert with the Chorale was November 14, 2006. Under his leadership the Chorale’s vision expanded.

Mr. Dooling invited local junior choral groups to be a part of the concerts. In February of 2007 the Lee High School Concert Choir and the Lee High Trouvères joined that performance. Later concerts featured The Huntsville Middle School Advanced Girls Choir and the Buckhorn High School Choir.

Mr. Dooling also began the continuing practice of introducing newly composed music in his concerts. The first of these was Bryan Page’s “Magnificat & Nunc Dimittis,” which the composer conducted. Special instrumentalists joined the singers in that concert, an addition that has become normal procedure for the Chorale. Through the years many instrumentalists from the area have joined its concerts.

Mr. Dooling’s next concert consisted entirely of music outside normal Western tradition. Beginning with Choral Music of the Jewish Temple, The Chorale then ended with Robert Ray’s Gospel Mass. Using the text of the Ordinary of the Mass, Ray interpreted 2000 years of liturgical heritage with the more contemporary music of the African-American church. The Temple B’nai Shalom became the fitting site for this moving and spirited concert. Members of the Chorale still remember that unique performance.

It was unfortunate for The Chorale that in 2009 Mr. Dooling accepted a new musical position in Texas. A search began again for a leader of a group that had continued to advance in reaching choral excellence, to be a joy and inspiration to the community and to be worthy of the name Master Chorale.

Dr. Erin Colwitz became the next director. Professor of Choral Music at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, she was a natural choice. For two seasons, from September 2009 to May 2011, the Chorale continued to grow. Her selections of appropriate concerts near Valentine’s Day in 2010 and 2011 proved to be precursors for the future. Dr. Colwitz left the University in 2011.

During Dr. Colwitz’s directorship, Mrs. Stacy Owens filled the position of Assistant Director. Her skill has improved the musicians immeasurably for the last ten years. Her contribution is an example of the outstanding leadership this organization has had throughout its existence.

Choices again faced the group. The selection of candidates was reduced to three in the North Alabama Community: Dr. Patricia Ramirez Hacker, Mr. Shane Kennedy and Dr. Ian Loeppky. Each of these talented directors brought her/his singular method and characteristics to the auditions. Baffled, the Chorale decided to spend the 2011-2012 season getting to know the candidates. Each worked with the singers, presenting one of the concerts.

With Dr. Ramirez Hacker, selections ranged from great European masters to modern composers like Z. Randall Stroope, Dello-Joio, and satisfying Black Spirituals. Dr. Loeppky introduced The Golden Age: Sixteenth Century English and Italian Choral Music. Mr. Kennedy delighted both Chorale and concert goers with composers of America. These included songs by local people: Camilla Pruitt’s “Tune Me, O Lord”; Becky Waters’ “If There is to be Peace” and Bryan Page’s3 Madrigals.” It was also excellent exposure to be joined by The Bell Ringers of Huntsville in concert. Certainly a well-spent season of fresh, stimulating events.

After much exciting music and much deliberation, the selection was Dr. Ramirez Hacker.

Since then, she has led the Chorale in exploring music outside the norm. She enjoys introducing music that might never have been sung in our area, expanding the knowledge and stimulating the growth of her singers. Her goal is to bring the world’s music to the Tennessee Valley.

She especially delights in commissioning new music. The composition competition held frequently by the Master Chorale enriches composer, singer, and listener. Usually limited to composers in North Alabama, this effort has exposed a surprising amount of talent and a number of impressive works. The group’s spirit overflows when singing music especially written for The Chorale. Occasional vocal workshops by skilled presenters has strengthened musical abilities.

The first Mosaic of Love appeared in February of 2013. It continues, thrilling enthusiastic audiences with a seated concert featuring desserts and love songs of every style imaginable. These delightful events usually have sellout crowds. Each year some well-known musical style is featured. Frank Sinatra, The Beatles, and Broadway Love Songs are examples. The musicians have decided these concerts are just as difficult, or even more so, than traditional fares. That is because each one must sing the exact rhythm in music that encourages individual interpretations (which in the case of the Mosaic of Love is not allowed). Yet, it is with high anticipation that the members approach each challenge and they delight in the result.

Progress under the leadership of Dr. Ramirez Hacker never ceases to move the group forward. While the musical presentations have improved, other areas of the organization have expanded. The sustaining help of individual members of the community, both in time and money, has been a bedrock for these 20 years. The Chorale was awarded its first grant from the City of Huntsville in 2013, and these grants have continued. This consists of an arts and cultural award which comes annually through the Arts Council. Later in that year, in November, Mercedes-Benz honored the Chorale with its grant which has been an annual gift since then. The Jane K. Lowe Foundation offered its backing in 2015 and Servis1st Bank joined these reliable sponsors in 2018 with its financial support. These donors are critical since the Huntsville Master Chorale has never charged admission at regular concerts. Only the Mosaic of Love requires an admission fee. Singing excellent music free to all has been a pleasure for the musicians.

The Chorale has sung in various places inside and outside the city. The American Choral Directors Association invited The Chorale to perform at its 2015 meeting. Joining the UAH Chamber Choir in performing with The Huntsville Symphony Orchestra in 2018 was a splendid reward.

Burritt Museum has annually requested Master Chorale carolers at its Christmas Holiday Dinners. Here small groups of singers move from church to cabins to the Big House, making music and asking diners to join in the celebration. Nothing matches this experience for the singers. To feel the cold air or the rain or the fog while caroling, to absorb the night lights of our beautiful city from Monte Sano, to watch the diners beam or sing along: what gifts! The power of song in that special intimate environment is something the Chorale members treasure and look forward to each December. Various organizations of the city and surrounding areas have sought its participation in particular events, from funerals to artistic occasions to celebrations.

One never knows if an attempt in the arts will succeed. Success requires dedication and labor. All the singers of the Huntsville Master Chorale, ever changing during the years, have experienced and appreciated the  hard work, the loyalty, the satisfaction, the spirit of being a part of the glory of choral music. These   fortunate singers have felt the joyous exaltation that singing bestows. They carry on a musical tradition beginning with the first humans on the earth, a tradition which will continue as long as there is breath left in the body of a human being. Each will agree with the phrase of a song’s chorus from a recent concert: “I’ve had the time of my life.”

Sara W. McDaris, February 2019