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Aurora Chamber Singers Present Border-Crossing Concert


David Neiweem
  • David Neiweem

"You are carrying your grandmother's most precious, fragile, once-a-year tureen out of a burning house," choral director David Neiweem advises a group of 30 singers at a recent rehearsal in the annex of the First Congregational Church of Burlington. The Aurora Chamber Singers are only warming up, with a series of successively higher octave jumps. But they chuckle, acknowledging his point: Don't force the sound; be light and quick.

Aurora, under the direction of technique-attentive Neiweem, is preparing for "Crossing Borders," a concert at Burlington's College Street Congregational Church on Saturday, May 11. Contrary to current White House policies, the program freely crosses American borders — in song. Selections range from spirituals by African Canadian composer R. Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943) to poem settings by American composer Howard Hanson (1896-1981) and Austrian American Frederick Piket (1903-1974) to arrangements of well-known Mexican folk songs by the living American composer David Conte. Tenor Adam Hall and soprano Aimee Bushey have solos; Jennifer Bower will accompany on organ and piano.

Aurora's singers are venturing over a border of their own: An all-20th-century program is new territory for them. The group had its first concert a year ago, but most of its members had sung together for years as the Oriana Singers. The latter chorus specialized in the Baroque and early classical favorites of founder-director Bill Metcalfe, who led it for 35 years.

When Metcalfe decided to retire, he wanted Oriana to retire, too. But the beloved director had done his job too well.

"People started talking about finding another director and keeping it going, because it's so much fun," recalls bass singer Tom Hyde, a retired computer programmer in the financial industry. "Bill was so fun to work with, and the music was great. So we got together for a meeting, and half the choir showed up."

Hyde had helped Metcalfe and his wife, harpsichordist and pianist Liz Metcalfe, produce Oriana's programs. He ended up spearheading the chorus' transition to Aurora.

The singers asked Neiweem, the music director at the church where they rehearse, to be their new director. The University of Vermont's head of vocal studies had been mulling over starting a new community choir since he ceded directorship of the Burlington Choral Society to Richard Riley in 2014. Neiweem was honored by the request.

"I inherited this incredible legacy that Bill had built up over so many years," says Neiweem. "Bill had handpicked and nurtured his singers. He had been able to keep such an incredible amount of energy and devotion in them that they wanted to keep singing together as a tribute to him."

"That's the price I had to pay," says a rueful Metcalfe, who is 84.

Nevertheless, Metcalfe adds, "That [transition], I think, was the ideal solution. I miss the old gang. But it's in good hands, and we'll see what David makes of it. We might be quite surprised, in a couple more years, to see what kind of music they're doing and how people like it."

In his programming for Aurora's first two semesterly concerts, Neiweem ventured only slightly beyond the group's longtime repertoire, mixing in some Heinrich Schütz, Johannes Brahms' vocal chamber music and a Joseph Haydn mass with traditional Johann Sebastian Bach cantatas.

"Like any parent, I'm trying to find out what his child does best," Neiweem says. "I'm happy to stick with [the singers' familiar repertory], but I don't want to shut the doors on other kinds of experiences. We're in transition."

That makes Aurora "the new kid on the block," quips bass singer Bill Mares. He began singing under Metcalfe in 1993 and wrote a book, The Bach Road to Boston, about singing Bach's St. Matthew Passion with Oriana and running the Boston Marathon on consecutive days.

Mares is impressed with Neiweem's approach. "David is a real choir director. We learn stuff. I tell him he hasn't given me two more years of life," says the 78-year-old with a chuckle, "but he's given my voice two more years."

Soprano Chloe Gallant, the newest — and youngest — member of Aurora, agrees. "I really love David's teaching style," she says. "He treats every rehearsal like a voice lesson. You can learn so much from just one rehearsal with him."

Gallant is one of five new members whom Neiweem has recruited since his directorship began. (He'll hold auditions in June.) The UVM senior music major sings in the college's concert choir and chamber group Catamount Singers, both directed by Neiweem, and takes private voice lessons with him. Gallant also founded the UVM MadCats, a classical a cappella treble voice group, two years ago.

"I've been in a lot of choirs with a majority of older participants, and often they're in it for the community aspect," Gallant comments. "But these people are all real musicians."

Among the new pieces the chorus is tackling at rehearsal are three Mexican folk songs sung in Spanish. After a rousing but straightforward delivery of one, the Aurora singers pause to hear Neiweem's advice, delivered with his customary humor.

"You can't measure the swirl of a skirt," he says, demonstrating a more lilting cadence in his warm baritone voice. "It has to have that je ne sais quoi — which we say in French because otherwise we would know what it is."

As exacting as he is, Neiweem thinks the singers already have what it takes to make a solid choir. "They sing with glee, with joy, with gusto and with conviction," he says. "They're saying with their voices, 'We're having a good time.'"