Handel Choir stands out Music: Group revered for its longevity, spirit and oratorios.

October 30, 1997|By Judith Green | Judith Green,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Baltimore is a city rich in choral music. Every church, it seems, has a choir. There are community choirs and college choirs. And there are four professional choirs: Concert Artists of Baltimore, Choral Arts Society, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Chorus and the Handel Choir of Baltimore.

Of these, the Handel Choir is the most venerable and its repertory the most specific. Though it performs many kinds of music, from Renaissance motets to contemporary works, it is best known for the big oratorios associated with its namesake.

Its concert Sunday will feature a major work by George Frederick Handel: the oratorio "Samson," in its first Baltimore performance.

The Handel Choir was founded in 1934, when a national teachers' convention was held in Baltimore.

"There was no one to perform for them," recounts the choir's director, T. Herbert Dimmock III. So a group of singers got together and provided a musical program. Once the conference was over, the group decided it didn't want to stop making music together.

Its very name shows its history. "There was a tradition then of naming choirs after composers," says Dimmock. Like the Handel & Haydn Society of Boston and the Mendelssohn Choir of Philadelphia, the Handel Choir pays homage to the great choral composers of the past.

In its 63 years, it has grown from a couple of dozen singers to 75. And though it has seen its share of hard times, its budget is now a hefty $190,000.

"The things we've had to go through!" says veteran member Francis Gilbert French of Guilford.

French, a retired mathematics teacher with the Baltimore City schools, has been in the choir since 1956. (He actually joined in 1953, but almost immediately began a three-year Army hitch.) He is a past president of the organization and sings bass.

"I remember in 1954 or '55 -- I was in the Army then, but I kept in touch -- the choir was in a contest," French says. "In those days, there was an amateur talent show in the old Hippodrome Theater. The whole choir went and sang the 'Hallelujah!' chorus, and it was broadcast on the radio.

"The way the contest worked was that after everyone performed, the radio audience voted by sending in postcards. Well, the choir had 100 people, and 100 people can marshal enough supporters to send in a lot of cards. And the $1,000 we got from winning kept us on budget that year."

The Handel Choir is really three choirs. The full group sings the big choral classics, including annual performances of "Messiah" (this year's are Dec. 7, 14 and 20-21).

Then there is a reduced chorus of 35 to 40 singers, the size choir that Handel himself would have conducted. This group performs an annual concert in the spring, of repertory that demands more clarity than massed choral sound. This season, it will perform Bach's "St. Matthew Passion" on April 5.

Finally, there is the 14-voice a cappella choir, which sings two concerts a year. The members of this small ensemble are paid. Members of the full choir, which includes the mixed chorus, pay a $70 membership fee and also pay for their music.

"Just as the main choir started because there was no one to perform for those teachers," says Dimmock, "all the others I started because there was no other group doing what I wanted to do."

The choir's many activities include an arts partnership with several Baltimore County schools and sight-singing classes for its members. It also grants 10 to 12 stipends a year to choir members for voice lessons.

The members of the choir include doctors, lawyers, accountants and an Avon saleswoman who donates a percentage of her profits to the choir. One member is a plumber; another is a Lutheran pastor. Some are Jews; some are Christians. Choristers come from as far away as York, Pa., and Arlington, Va.

Most are in it for the long term. "When I came," says Dimmock, who is now in his 20th season as conductor, "there were two founding members still singing. One died, and we sang at her funeral. The other is now in Keswick," the senior care facility in Roland Park.

He is especially pleased that the membership includes a number of music teachers.

"It keeps them in touch with why they wanted to be a music teacher in the first place," he says. "And Baltimore County gives continuing education credits to its teachers who sing in the choir."

Two of these are Lelah Mahoney, who teaches at Ridgely Middle School in Lutherville, and Jennifer Kuhn, from Sandy Plains Elementary School in Dundalk, one of the Handel Choir's partner schools.

Mahoney has sung with the choir for five years; Kuhn, two. Both recognize the choir's value as a teaching tool. "My students admire the fact that I'm still working with a choir that's putting out good material," says Kuhn.

The group often invites choirs from nearby schools -- Friends School, Park School and Bryn Mawr School are some who have participated -- to join it.

The choir meets on Monday evenings in the fellowship hall of First English Lutheran Church, on the Guilford side of North Charles and 38th streets, where Dimmock is music director. Rehearsal starts at 7: 45 p.m. and ends at 10 p.m., and most of it is spent in serious practice. Somewhere in the middle, however, is a 15-minute break for cookies and coffee, and the choir cuts loose.

"We're really here for the food," says a member.

For information on the Handel Choir, call 410-366-6544.

Pub Date: 10/30/97

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