She may not have suspected it at the time, but Janice Chandler's first solo performance set forth a divine direction for the Baltimore soprano's career.
At the age of 12, she sang the gospel standard "To God Be the Glory," by Andrae Crouch, at a parochial school assembly in Washington. Tonight, the 28-year-old Ms. Chandler will again sing in her comfortable sacred realm as one of the soloists in Mozart's majestic "C Minor Mass," in a Baltimore Choral Arts Society program, "Mozart at the Meyerhoff."
"It's funny. I never sang because I thought I had such a wonderful voice. I sang because I wanted to say something with the music," says the statuesque singer, in a recent interview at the Bolton Hill offices of the Choral Arts Society.
"In performances, I try very hard to put technical things aside . . . and give myself to God and the music," she says. "It's really not me. It's a gift, and I'm just the steward of the gift."
Ms. Chandler, who shares the stage tonight with soprano Linda Mabbs, tenor Rockland Osgood and baritone Dominic Cossa, does not limit herself to a repertoire of religious music. But she finds special inspiration in songs of divine content. Most recently, for example, she sang performances of Handel's "Messiah" with both the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the National Symphony Orchestra -- the last in a December performance at the Kennedy Center backed up by the Baltimore Choral Arts Society.
An adjunct professor of voice at Morgan State University, she also appears regularly on "Breath of Life," a religious broadcast on cable's Black Entertainment Television network. And, coming from an observant Seventh Day Adventist family, she declines to perform secular music on the sabbath.
That stricture may have affected her career, she concedes, particularly in the direction of opera or other theatrical work where Sunday matinees are common. "I have decided to stick with what I believe," she asserts. "I think some people thought there was something wrong with me, but this is something that's a part of me."
This conviction "allows her to imbue the piece with a personal and deeply felt emotion," says Tom Hall, the Choral Arts Society music director. He notes that many composers and performers of legendary sacred music might not have been religious themselves.
Recognition of Ms. Chandler's singing gift came in a Seventh Day Adventist environment, at the DuPont Park School in Washington. She attended the parochial school from her home in Brandywine in Prince Georges County, where she lived with her parents and three brothers.
In junior high, music teacher Kerri Lawrence tapped Ms. Chandler to be part of a school-based gospel trio, The Triad, with friends Lorraine Armstead Washington and Carita Suggs.
"Lorraine was the soprano in the group. I sang alto. I really didn't sing high then," she recalls. "We were very young and we just had this blend. People were very surprised at our level of accomplishment."
The group gained some local attention, including winning a Washington gospel talent search in 1981. Soon Lorraine's mother persuaded Ms. Chandler to begin voice lessons with Donald Chestnut, a private teacher with whom her daughter studied.
He began directing her voice into the mezzo soprano range, and Ms. Chandler continued singing through high school, at the Pine Forge Academy in Pottstown, Pa., a Seventh Day Adventist boarding school with a well-known choir.
"Music really kind of took me when I was in college," notes Ms. Chandler. She attended first Oakwood College in Huntsville, Ala., and then Indiana University in Bloomington, where she earned a Performance Certificate in 1990.
It was in college that Ms. Chandler discovered her true voice, soprano. She also learned the classical, technical skills of "head singing," in which a singer's voice is supported by the diaphragm but given its power and tone "in the mask of the face."
"I have everything I need right here," says the singer, raising her chin, stretching her neck and tracing a slender finger around the bones of her face.
While she enjoys opera singing -- she has performed with the Washington Opera and the Indiana University Opera Theater -- Ms. Chandler says she has little interest in Broadway music or popular songs.
Last year she traveled to Russia with the Choral Arts Society of Washington, performing in the Bolshoi Hall at the Moscow Conservatory and the Glinka Kappela Hall in St. Petersburg.
"I came away with a new respect for the people. I really believe they enjoyed what we had to offer" during the eight-day trip, she says. But, she adds, "I was glad to leave."
Ms. Chandler is in her third year teaching at Morgan State, where she was invited by Nathan Carter, director of the Baltimore campus' well-known choir. She says she has found "a natural knack" for teaching, and after two years of commuting from Brandywine, recently moved to an apartment in the Charles Village area.
"I only knew how to get through Baltimore. Now I'm learning it's very different from Washington and other cities," she says.
As for tonight's Mozart "Mass" -- on a program that also includes soloist Andrew Wasyluszko performing the "Violin Concerto in A Major" -- Ms. Chandler politely declines to say whether Mozart is a favorite composer.
"Let's say I love Mozart because he makes you sing right," she says diplomatically.
NIGHT OF MOZART
What: Baltimore Choral Arts Society
When: 8 tonight
Where: Meyerhoff Symphony Hall
Tickets: $10-$31; half-price student seats available
Call: (410) 783-8000