Adirondack choral groups
SARANAC LAKE — Normally a conductor stands while he or she instructs a chorus. Unfortunately for Karen Butters, musical director for the Adirondack Singers, she had just gone through foot surgery. During a rehearsal, with her leg wrapped in a magenta cast and propped up on a chair, she started the piece, “Mary Did You Know?” written by Buddy Greene.
The next four and a half minutes were filled with some of the most hauntingly beautiful music Saranac Lake has to offer.
Though Butters retired a few years ago from her career as a public school teacher, groups like this continue her pursuit of music.
“It is a labor of love,” Butters said. “If you’re a musician or have any kind of talent or hobby that consumes you, you know what that feels like to do what you love.”
The Adirondacks is home to a number of talented church choirs and gospel ensembles. The big three are the Northern Lights Choir, Adirondack Singers and the Northern Adirondack Vocal Ensemble (NAVE)
Northern Lights Choir
The Northern Lights Choir is the brain child of composer Glen McClure and director Helen Demong, a Crane School of Music alumna and former music teacher at Saranac Lake High School.
McClure, a professor of Music and Humanities at Paul Smith’s College, approached Demong in the fall of 2012 and asked her to find singers in preparation for an oratory he wrote called “Voices of Timbuktu.” An oratory is an opera without all of the grandiosity — no costumes, no acting.
Demong recruited both amateur church singers and professionally trained musicians for the piece.
“I wanted to get 30 people,” she said, “but I believe we ended up with 50.”
All the singers had such a wonderful time performing the piece that they wanted to continue, and thus the Northern Lights Choir was born.
“There’s a synergy about it,” Demong said. “They lift each other up. It is one of the most beautiful large ensemble choruses.”
McClure and Demong began developing “Voices of Timbuktu” into a full-length opera titled “An Adirondack Folk Opera.”
The opera tells a story of the fight for racial equality in 19th century America. During this time, free black men in the North were granted the right to vote; however, they needed to own at least 40 acres of land. Gerrit Smith, an abolitionist and a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, divvied up 120,000 acres of his own land to black families in North Elba. John Brown also played an important role in this story, teaching the families how to farm and cultivate the land.
Many people know the story of John Brown’s anti-slavery rabble-rousing in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, but few recognize the contributions toward integration made in the North Country, according to McClure.
“Other stories happened elsewhere,” he said. “This is the Adirondacks’ struggle for racial equality. It’s our story.”
The opera recently received a grant from the Endowment for the Arts, and next year a concert version will be performed and broadcast on Mountain Lake PBS.
The choir held its winter concert titled “The Road Home” Friday, Dec. 8 at St. Bernard’s Church in Saranac Lake. All the pews were filled.
“An opera takes five, six, seven years to make,” McClure said. “This choir was pulled together for a multi-year project, but it has grown way beyond that.”
Demong’s talent shines through the variety of singers she works with. Some have performed at the Metropolitan Opera House and others are local singers who joined the choir as a fun hobby.
“Helen is a magician,” McClure said. “She knows every voice in the choir and how to mix the trained with the untrained.”
Adirondack Singers was originally the North Country Community College chorus directed by Geroge Reynolds. He passed away in January of 1986 and the program was dropped a few years later, but members wanted to keep singing.
“We decided we wanted to keep going,” said Lynda Warner, the president of Adirondack Singers, “so we took steps to become incorporated as a 501c3 organization and reorganized under the name Adirondack singers.”
Since 1999, Butters has been directing the group and the singers have performed a spring concert and a winter concert every year. They’ve provided choral accompaniments to some big name acts as well.
“Our claim to fame is that twice we were invited to sing backup with Kenny Rogers when he performed at the Olympic Center,” Butters said.
The Adirondack Singers also televise their performances.
“A lot of people in the community say that’s when they know Christmas has begun when they hear our concert on the public access channel,” Warner said.
“We get a lot of community support by people coming out to our concerts,” Butters added. “A lot of people who are shut in or can’t get out really look forward to our recorded performances on local cable TV.”
Many of the Adirondack Singers are older ladies and gentlemen who have been singing for close to 60 years. Music creates a harmonious environment and lifestyle, according to Butters.
“Socially, it’s healthy,” she said. “Mentally, it’s healthy. Physically, it’s healthy to keep singing.”
The Northern Adirondack Vocal Ensemble started seven years ago through the efforts of Angela Brown, director of Hill and Hallow Music, and Drew Benware, the director of choral activities at Saranac Lake High School.
“We didn’t want to form another community choir because there are already lots of those,” Benware said. “We thought, ‘what could we do that’s different?'”
Benware and Brown formed NAVE, a small chamber choir that specializes in a capella work.
“It was just a musical niche that hadn’t formed yet,” he said.
NAVE will perform its “A Festival of Lessons and Carols” tonight at St. Peter’s Church in Plattsburgh and Sunday night at St. Agnes Catholic Church in Lake Placid.
“I would say there’s something in it for everyone,” Benware said. “If you’re going purely for the musical reason, you’re going to be completely fulfilled. If you’re going for the spiritual aspect of it, you’re going to be fulfilled. If you’re there for a little bit of both, I think you’ll probably get the most out of it.”
Though the other choruses tend to welcome all who want to sing, NAVE does have some requirements. Benware said NAVE is a very select and auditioned group, and that helps create a strong ensemble.
“We keep the membership stable right around 20 to 21 members,” he said. “The only vacancy would be if someone couldn’t do a season. For example, we have a substitute bass because one of our basses is in Australia. The more a choir sings together, the more they feel [like an] ensemble and the more things gel. It’s such a testament to this group that we have so many original members.”
Choruses and ensembles are like a puzzle pieces. Alone, they give you something to work with, and you might be able to guess the image, but it’s only when they all come together that you can see the full picture.
Mindy Poupore, an alto, said a major aspect of signing is listening.
“People think you’re just opening your mouth and singing,” she said, “but you’re really depending on the person next to you because your part fits with theirs. In a musical group, you lean on each other. That’s why some things fall apart. If one group doesn’t come in with a lot of strength, you think ‘Oh no,’ and you start to hesitate. A lot of it is just listening to one another and making your part fit.”
Her favorite piece to sing is “Ave Maria.”
“It’s not the Schubert one you’re thinking of,” she said. “It’s a different version. It’s the one with the most haunting melody. It’s the one that sticks with you.”
Poupore said she’s always impressed by the amount of people who want to sing and listen, and that adds to the cultural advantage of the North Country.
“We’re not just North Country hicks,” she said laughing. “We have a lot of culture and a lot of talent in our area to provide for people, especially in this Christmas season.”
With three major singing groups in the area, Will Grey, a tenor in both NAVE and the Northern Lights Choir, said the music only adds to an already eclectic art scene.
“There are so many different and incredible artists living in Saranac Lake,” he said. “I worked at the Adirondack Carousel over the summer, and all of the paintings around the carousel were painted by local artists in Saranac Lake, and the paintings are gorgeous. It’s pretty incredible to have such an awesome art seen in such a small town.
Benware, who also plays piano in the Northern Lights Choir, said he appreciates that each singing group has a different focus and specialty.
“It’s great that this many people are interested in singing,” he said. “It’s unique to this area in terms of other places that I’ve lived and worked. So many community members are interested, not only in singing themselves, but supporting the choral arts.”