Belfast Choral Festival a first

Singing Songs of Peace

By Dagney C. Ernest | Sep 25, 2017
Ronald G. Sherwin and Sarah H. McQuarrie

Belfast — High school students all over the state are preparing for their respective district auditions later this fall, which will pave their way to prestigious music festivals in the new year. A similar vocal intensive opportunity is being offered in Belfast, open to individual singers and local church, high school and community choirs.

The Belfast Choral Festival runs Friday evening through Sunday afternoon, Sept. 29 through Oct. 1, at the First Church UCC, 8 Court St. The public is invited to enjoy the results in a Songs of Peace for Our Times concert Sunday at 3 p.m.

The idea of having such a choral festival at First Church has been a dream of First Church’s Joel Krueger for many years. The pastor said that for him, singing is a gift, and he knows many people feel the same way — with good reason.

“Because singing engages, not just the voice, but the whole body. And if you think of it, it is similar to any kind of cardiovascular exercise,” he said. “You are breathing in and breathing out, engaging your whole body as you sing!”

And when you get a bunch of bodies together singing, there’s a whole other dynamic, one familiar to those who gather together at a house of worship to be inspired, which, Krueger points out, means to breathe in.

“My wife, Kate [Winters, who shares the pastorate], likes to talk about how we in the church come together to ‘conspire,’ to ‘breath together’ or to be in a ‘conspiracy’ for God’s love and compassion, to join together in harmony with one another and God’s Spirit,” Krueger said. “What an exciting idea! Likewise, when we sing together, when we join our voices, we are doing the same thing.”

A few years ago, Krueger shared his dream for a choral festival at First Church with Ronald G. Sherwin, now chairman of the Department of Music at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth. When Winters was attending Bangor Theological Seminary, she and Krueger attended the Brewer United Church of Christ; Krueger was on the committee that hired Sherwin as choral director and Sarah H. McQuarrie, his wife, as organist.

“That’s when we met. Years later, not long after Kate and I came to the First Church … I ran into Ron again. He was touring New England with a choir from Castleton College, and they had a cancellation for one of their concerts,” said Krueger, who welcomed the chance to host the choir.

“I remember it as a place that was incredibly welcoming and a really great experience for the students,” he said by phone from UMass. “I’m excited about the people and the vibe in the community.”

Community is the touchstone for the festival, offered in “a climate where there is quite a bit of distrust and concerns and questions about the future and people getting along,” said Sherwin.

“I think this might be a way for people to put aside differences and use music to create a sense of community,” he said.

To a certain extent, creating unity quickly is the goal of any music festival. Friday night, there will be a limited rehearsal, “maybe an hour or two at the most,” and then a social time for participants to get to know each other. The bulk of the work will be done Saturday.

Sherwin said this kind of festival is approximately three quarters about the music; and one quarter about getting to know new people and bonding around a common goal.

“It’s not about doing a perfect, polished performance; it’s about sharing a vision through music and creating an opportunity for community,” said Sherwin.

It’s a format he knows well. He and McQuarrie, interim chairwoman, associate professor of music education and graduate coordinator at Bridgewater State University in Bridgewater, Mass., co-direct such festivals on a regular basis. She provides piano accompaniment and conducts a children’s ensemble that will sing one selection with the larger choir. Both hold doctoral degrees.

“It’s one of those situations where we are equals; it’s definitely a co- thing,” said Sherwin.

The music they will be working through with the ad hoc festival chorus is a mix of mostly four-part arranged songs, which may be previewed and ordered in advance of the festival. First Church has ordered a few extra packets, as well.

“Certainly, it would be ideal if people have the music when they arrive … but if somebody is dying to be a part of this, we’re not going to turn them away – they just might have to share music with somebody,” said Sherwin.

That music includes uplifting pieces such as an arrangement of the famous gospel song “The Storm is Passing Over”; a setting of Langston Hughes’ “I Dream a World” poem; and a piece Sherwin said serves as the festival’s central work. Titled “Nia,” which means “purpose” and is one of the principles of Kwanzaa, it addresses “why we were born — to help the underprivileged, to make a difference.” All the songs are in English, although “Mungu Ni Mwema with God Is So Good” mixes in a little Swahili.

“What people need to know is that we’re going to create an uplifting experience for them,” said Sherwin. “This is not going to be one of those festivals where you have a conductor who’s thinking ‘perfection’ and trying to suck the fun out of it. We’re going to get the best we can, and I believe that this music will sing itself, because its message is so strong.”

The First Church in Belfast Choral Festival: Songs of Peace for Our Times also is not like the All-State or District student festivals, although similar in structure. In the school festivals, participants are auditioned and come prepared “and you know exactly what you’re getting,” said Sherwin.

“I think there’ll be a mix of how well people are prepared and how much they know and don’t,” he said.

“The goal for something somewhat unique like this is to make sure to make it so we can teach those who need it as quickly as possible. Those who might be more prepared will be able to help the people sitting beside them and after a weekend together, we’ll have a great product,” he said.

While Sherwin and McQuarrie are conducting as “hired guns” — “I have a passion for this, which is why they’re bringing me in to do it,” Sherwin said — they are quick to say that the Belfast Choral Festival exists because of Krueger’s vision.

“I wouldn’t be coming to Belfast if Joel hadn’t picked up the phone and called me at UMass to say, what do you think of this,” Sherwin said.

Krueger said he hopes the Belfast Choral Festival will bring many voices together, across generations, “to breathe together, to express a message of Purpose and Peace together, to sing and be in harmony with one another, and to just know the joy that all of this can bring to each of us.”

Midcoast singers thinking of joining the fest can register at firstchurchinbelfast.org. The public is encouraged to enjoy the results Sunday afternoon at the free concert.

“To be the blessed community with one another — those who come to sing, along with those who come to listen. That’s my hope for the choral festival,” said Krueger.

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Dagney C. Ernest
A&E editor for Courier Publications, LLC
(207) 594-4401/4407, ext. 115
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Dagney has been providing Courier coverage of the local arts scene since 1985 and has helmed the multi-paper A&E section since it debuted in 2003. She has been a local performing artist, community and professional, for more than 30 years and spent a decade writing, producing and announcing on-air for several Midcoast radio stations. When not in the NewsNest, Dagney likes to be in motion.

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