Harmonic Convergence

After some ups and downs, the Children's Chorus of Maryland and founder Betty Bertaux rediscover each other. Now that she's back, they're humming again.

November 16, 1999|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

It's a gorgeous morning for soccer and other Saturday pursuits, but Children's Chorus of Maryland concert choir members are inside, intently working through Benjamin Britten's "Ceremony of the Carols," in preparation for this year's holiday performance.

Artistic director Betty Bertaux conducts the kids, all musically gifted, with an uncanny mix of lenience and discipline. She lets the sopranos whisper when she works with the altos. But the sopranos know to be ready when it's their turn to sing.

If they sound great, Bertaux says terrific. If they're flat, she lets them know pronto. Her ear picks up the slightest meander from the pitch. And, before two jittery soloists begin, Bertaux demonstrates their task with a lovely soprano.

FOR THE RECORD - An incorrect address and telephone number for Temple Baptist Church were listed with yesterday's article about Betty Bertaux and the Children's Chorus of Maryland. The church is at 6916 Dogwood Road in Woodlawn. The phone number is 410-944-2252. The Sun regrets the error.

When Bertaux left Baltimore 12 years ago, these kids were toddlers. And Bertaux was heartbroken and exhausted. She knew she had to leave; at the same time feared she was letting down the organization she had founded in 1976 and built into a trail-blazing choral music program for hundreds of Baltimore children.

Bertaux didn't think she would ever come back. But last summer she did, to the delight of the chorus and its board. How Bertaux and the Children's Chorus of Maryland went their separate ways and found one another again feels like a tale divinely ordered up by some beneficent music god who believes in the power of transformation -- and happy endings.

A handsome woman who doesn't look her 60 years, Bertaux carves swift, deft directions in the air and punctures a stern demeanor with sudden, wry smiles. When the choir hits a troublesome spot, she resorts to the hand signals devised by Zoltan Kodaly to help young children learn to sing.

Like the late Hungarian composer and teacher, Bertaux is a highly accomplished musician of prominent stature in choral music. And, like Kodaly, Bertaux firmly believes she is not squandering her talent by working with children such as these. "The deal with children is that they deserve the best," she will say several days after the rehearsal. "And so much of what is given to them is not the best. ... If we're going to have top-quality, first-class adult musicians in our audiences and in our choirs and our orchestras, we have to start them very young."

As a public school music teacher in Baltimore County in the 1970s, Bertaux's frustration with limited opportunities for honing talented young voices led her to start the Children's Chorus. She approached scores of parents, tried to persuade them of the value of paying tuition for a choral music education. At the time, "treating the voice as a musical instrument" was a new concept, Bertaux says. Nationally, few children's programs existed, and locally, the Peabody Conservatory's preparatory program had no formal chorus.

Bertaux's pioneering efforts yielded six students, including her son Kevin, who gathered in her home for weekly voice and musicianship training.

Before she resigned, the chorus had become a full-fledged organization poised on a dilemma: to grow or not to grow. Bertaux wanted it to grow and to become its full-time artistic director. As she describes the split, Bertaux chooses words carefully. "The board disagreed with me, basically. I was more ambitious and had a greater vision for the chorus than was comfortable for the board."

Bertaux seized an opportunity to move to Houston. Leaving was hard; Baltimore was where she had raised her son, where she had put down adult roots. As she took teaching positions in Houston and pursued a master's degree in composition at the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University, Bertaux was able to put her departure in perspective: "I'm very philosophical about these sorts of things; when one door closes, others open. I'm able to let go of [the past] and look forward to new adventures."

After living in Houston for five years, Bertaux took a temporary assignment at Holy Names College in Oakland, Calif., where she had received her master's in the Kodaly method. When the year ended, she remained. California -- its landscape, climate and freedom from East Coast angst -- allowed her to develop "a serenity, an inner peace." It was a time, she says, "to reflect on the events of my life and develop some wisdom."

Bumps in the road

In Baltimore, the Children's Chorus' path was not as serene. It endured shaky years of internal bickering and was rattled by swift turnover in the director's seat and on the board. Growing pains within young arts institutions are not unusual. But the chorus acquired a reputation for being snooty and for draining the fun from singing. Some orchestras, opera companies and other musical organizations in need of children's voices stopped calling. The chorus left "a lot of broken fences" in its wake, says Lorene LaBerge, a chorus instructor with three children who have grown up in the choir.

Because the chorus meant so much to her, it was a difficult time, LaBerge says. "This organization gets in your blood and takes over your life."

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