BAR HARBOR — For most folks, the highlights of summertime fun on Mount Desert Island are such outdoorsy delights as hikes in Acadia National Park, boating, swimming, golf or tennis.
But for 50 years now, for an impressive number of local and summer folks, the big thrill of the summer season is spending several evenings a week, throughout July, filing into a stuffy church hall or cluttered high school music room, to sit in uncomfortable chairs and learn a new piece of very complicated choral music.
The Mount Desert Summer Chorale is a tradition that started, somewhat inadvertently, five decades ago by John Harms and it is still going strong.
This year, under its fourth director, David Schildkret, and in celebration of reaching the half century mark, the 75-member chorale will be performing “Elijah” by Felix Mendelssohn, which will be presented at St. Saviour’s Church, Friday and Saturday, Aug. 3 and 4 at 7:30 p.m.
“The past couple of summers we have been presenting smaller, lower budget concerts in preparations for this big one,” says Schildkret. “In fact, this is the biggest we have ever done, with eight soloists, including superstar Gordon Hawkins, who has sung at the Met and is now with the Washington National Opera.”
Not to mention a virtually full orchestra.
Maestro Harms probably had no idea that the little summer concert he threw together in 1968 would put down such deep and expanding roots. Initially he invited a few of his singer friends in New York to visit him on MDI for a casual performance of Rossini’s “Stabat Mater.” He led the church choir at St. Mary’s by the Sea in Northeast Harbor and he said he’d try to lure choir members from their boats, beaches and tennis courts to back up the visiting soloists.
Dozens of singers agreed to give up their fun in the sun to learn the music and the concert turned out to be a big hit —filling the pews of St. Mary’s. They also made it clear they were eager to do it again the following summer. As it turned out, they kept Harms coming back for the next 13 summers.
Harms turned his baton over to Wilson Gault in 1982, who promptly passed it to George Emlen, who expanded the choir and started to add a small orchestra, largely gleaned from the Bangor Symphony. When Emlen retired in 1999, David Schildkret took over.
“I was at the University of Rochester,” Maestro Schildkret recalls, “when a student and glee club member named Michael Marion, who also sang with the Summer Chorale, approached me asking if I knew anyone who would be interested in taking this directors job on Mount Desert Island for six weeks every summer.”
“Well, my wife and I had visited MDI 20 years before and, like so many people who visit this place, had always wanted to find our way back. So, I said ‘Yes I do. I’d be interested.’ The more Michael told me about this dedicated group of amateur singers, doing some of the most challenging liturgical music, the more convinced I was.”
Schildkret is now the director of choral activities at Arizona State University and he mines his own student body and even his own talented family for fresh young voices to take on most of the difficult solos, although he has found some local talents up to the task as well.
Marsha Lyons of Southwest Harbor has been singing with MDSC for 20 years and counting. She has often been called upon to sing solos with her lilting soprano. But she says she is also content to simply be part of the chorus, which actually has a big role in this “Elijah.”
“Singing has always been a sanctuary for me,” Lyons says. “Not just from really bad times — and there has certainly been a need for that this past year — but for the small irritations in life as well. A letter from the IRS, a stressful day at work. I can go into rehearsal feeling out of sorts and disgruntled and find myself singing all the way home. I think it works that way for a lot of people.”
She adds that a work such as the “Elijah,” which is so dramatic with the Biblical prophet battling the forces of the Baal worshipers, is a terrific emotional cathartic for her own, one hopes, less apocalyptic battles.
Lyons began her musical journey with MDSC when George Emlen was the director, and says she enjoys the different dynamic each director has brought to the party.
“David [Schildkret] is perfectly suited to direct this work,” she says. “He is always reminding us that this is a story — and an exciting one— and it should be sung that way as if we were telling it for the first time.”
Another soprano, Julia Laird, is one of the maestro’s ringers from Arizona State, singing with the chorale for the first time. She reiterates what Lyons says about the director’s insistence that these works are not simply words set to music, but thrilling stories.
“It’s not just about getting the notes right but getting the emotions right,” she said. “He encourages us to think about who we are in each movement of the program.”
This is borne out when, at a recent rehearsal, whilst singing a passage about mighty winds, firestorms, floods and volcanic eruptions — your basic fire and brimstone scenario— Schildkret stopped it mid-measure.
“These disasters are being recounted by the Baal worshippers,” he said. “Elijah has just killed their prophets— their friends! How would you feel about that? Angry, right? Pretend that you are telling all this horror— that just happened— to a rather dull child. To keep his interest, you have to act it out with your voices, your emotions. Sell it!”
When they try the passage again it really is scarier and more immediate, one can almost hear the smashing of rocks, the tearing winds.
“When I take on a new work,” Schildkret says, “one of my big objectives is to find a way through the dramatic peaks and valleys of a piece, to give it shape and continuity. Sometimes that requires figuring out why the composer made certain puzzling choices. When I manage to solve that puzzle it is often the key to opening up the whole thing.”
For him, tackling these musical mysteries is as thrilling as others might find an Agatha Christie murder mystery.
Schildkret says Mendelssohn’s Elijah’s is fully loaded with thrills and chills and, he believes, has a message that is still relevant.
“When Elijah feels he has been fighting a lost cause” Schildkret says, “that all the havoc he has created to topple Baal, has been futile, he falls into deep despair, wanting to die and be done with it. But God comes to him and convinces him to endure. He reminds Elijah of the need for quiet fortitude and the steadfast pursuit of fairness and right. God tells him to endure. Who among us, today, couldn’t benefit from that advice?”
To celebrate the endurance of the Mount Desert Summer Chorale there will be a couple of extra added attractions for this special anniversary season. Saturday, July 28, at 7:30 p.m. the Mount Desert Summer Chorale will return to its original venue at St, Mary’s by the Sea in Northeast Harbor for a gala concert featuring several of the visiting soloists in works by Mozart, Haydn, Faure and others.
Guest conductor George Emlen will also conduct a sample of the “Elijah,” which he first directed for the MDSC’s 30th anniversary in 1998.
On Aug. 2 at 7:30 p.m. it’s back to St. Saviour’s for a benefit concert “Songs of Love and Remembrance” with more guest soloists singing classical compositions, classic pop and Broadway love tunes.
For more information and to reserve tickets to any or all of these events go to www.summerchorale.org or call 244-0042.