Columbia in microcosm Choir: Pro Cantare brings together people from varied walks of life who share a love of making music.

March 27, 1998|By Judith Green | Judith Green,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

A choir is often a cross section of a community, and Columbia Pro Cantare, founded 20 years ago by Frances Motyca Dawson, is a microcosm of Columbia.

Sometimes, such as this weekend, the choir carries the Columbia flag into nearby territory. On Sunday, Pro Cantare will combine with the choir of Second Presbyterian Church in Baltimore to sing the Mozart "Requiem" and a new work by Elam Ray Sprenkle.

Teachers and government workers are among the choir's 100 members. So are Sandra Gray, vice president of Independent Sector, a lobby for nonprofit organizations, and wife of Howard County Councilman C. Vernon Gray; and Tom Lorsung, director of the National Catholic News Service and husband of Howard County Councilwoman Mary C. Lorsung.

Pro Cantare has architects and engineers, a family practitioner and a speech therapist, people who work on the Hubble Space Telescope and Forbes magazine, a psychologist and a statistician.

Unlike an orchestra or a dance company, a choir requires no special skills -- just a love of singing. If you can read music, so much the better; but the joy of making music together is what turns a group of just folks into a chorus.

And so it is with Pro Cantare, whose name means "for singing."

"It's something that stimulates the soul and the mind that's different from work," says Jeff Frithsen of Kings Contrivance village, who sings tenor and serves on Pro Cantare's 15-member board of directors.

Many of the government workers commute to Washington or Northern Virginia and rush home on Tuesdays to make the choir's 7: 30 p.m. rehearsals at Hammond High School.

One woman in the group is a scientist who measures the oxygen output of tropical rain forests for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in Beltsville. Another spends her days removing asbestos from public properties.

An oceanographer with the Environmental Protection Agency, Frithsen is a longtime choral singer: high school, Boston College, Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul in Providence, R.I., and the Swanhurst Chorus, a 70-year-old ensemble in Newport, R.I.

"When you sing," he says, "you do something to make music instead of spinning a CD."

"For me, it's my real life," says Irina von Alten, one of two German au pairs in the group. Von Alten, 23, comes from the town of Lueneburg, where she sang with a church, the opera and a contemporary music group called the Landesjungchor Niedersachsen.

"Since I am alive, I am singing -- I am in a choir since the age of 7," she says.

Retirement choice

Maxine Richardson, a science teacher retired from the Baltimore schools, says that as she neared retirement more than a decade ago she thought about things she had always wanted to do but had not had time for. A member of the choir of St. James Episcopal Church in Baltimore, she decided she wanted to sing more and better.

So the Wilde Lake village resident began voice lessons with a teacher at the Peabody Conservatory of Music and joined Pro Cantare two years ago. She's a swing singer, switching from second soprano to first alto as needed.

The chorus members unanimously credit Dawson, 58, with carrying the flame that inspires them.

A resident of Oakland Mills village, Dawson moved to Columbia with her husband, Ben, a research hematologist, in 1968. She had a fistful of music credentials (undergraduate and master's degrees from Peabody, a summer of advanced conducting at the Tanglewood Music Festival in Massachusetts) and no place to exercise them.

She organized a chorus to sing Beethoven's "Choral Fantasy" with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra when it made its summer home at Merriweather Post Pavilion.

"I couldn't just abandon them," she says. So there it was: Pro Cantare.

Though it sings the classical repertory from Mozart to "Messiah," Pro Cantare bears its founder's stamp in a large body of Czech and Bohemian works, reflecting Dawson's Czech ancestry.

The choir has sung works by composers as familiar as Dvorak and as unusual as Jan Dismas Zelenka. It has premiered a Mass by Johann Nepomuk Hummel, not performed since its composition in 1830.

Meeting expenses

As it has grown and achieved a reputation over the years, Pro Cantare has faced the same obstacle as other arts groups: maintaining high standards while remaining essentially amateur. Though the singers do this for the love of it, the programs, posters and newspaper ads don't come free; nor did the tour and a compact disc that the choir cut. And the orchestra hired for major choral works such as the "Requiem" must be paid.

That's the single largest expense of Pro Cantare's $131,000 annual operating budget, supported by ticket sales, grants from the Howard County Arts Council and similar organizations, and funds raised by the choir and board members, says Frithsen. Dawson, he says, is not nearly compensated adequately for the work she does.

She and general manager Kathy Bowen, who work at each other's kitchen tables on Tuesday and Thursday mornings, do this for the same reason the choir sings: They believe in it.

It's also a source of community, friendship and artistic fraternity.

Jim Brack, a state parole and probation officer who works in Baltimore County, met his wife, Margaret, in the choir. ("Sometimes I feel like Mary Worth," sighs Bowen.) He is a baritone, she a soprano, and they have four children (vocal range undetermined).

"You meet people, they become your friends, and you hang on for those kinds of reasons," says Brack, who lives in Arbutus. "Anyway, my wife won't let me leave the chorus!"

Columbia Pro Cantare will perform with Chancel Choir of Second Presbyterian Church at 3: 30 p.m. Sunday at the church, 4200 St. Paul St., Baltimore. There is no charge, but donations are requested. Information: 410-565-5744.

Pub Date: 3/27/98

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