A Sound foundation

The Maryland State Boychoir, which hones the singing and life skills of its diverse membership, realizes its dream of a permanent home

April 12, 2006|By TIM SMITH | TIM SMITH,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

At about half-past 6 on a crisp spring evening, dozens of boys start pouring through the doors of the nobly proportioned Cathedral Church of St. Matthew in the Northeast Baltimore neighborhood of Mayfield.

They range in age from 7 to 20, in weight from minuscule to Sumo, in dress from preppie to 'hood. They're black, white, Asian, Christian, Jewish. One is blind. They're rich, poor, in-between.

At the foot of a staircase in the lower level of the 1928 stone church, the boys head in various directions, but all with a common purpose -- to hone their voices as members of the Maryland State Boychoir.

"Everyone has different interests and hobbies," says Max Gross, 14, of Arcadia, "but singing brings us all together."

Since 1987, when Baltimore native and Peabody Conservatory grad Frank Cimino founded the group with 14 boys, the choir has grown in size, accomplishment and potential. This month, it also grew unexpectedly in financial outlook, when the organization received a $1 million donation.

Today, with about 140 members, drawn from Baltimore and several Maryland counties, as well as Pennsylvania and Virginia, the Boychoir is in a position to realize a long-held dream of having a permanent home.

Artistic director Cimino, who has been the organist and director of music for 17 years at St. Matthew, a United Church of Christ congregation, has had his choir's headquarters there since 2001 and presents several concerts each season in the beautifully stained-glass-accented sanctuary.

"Three years ago, I asked if the church would consider selling the building," Cimino says. "The Boychoir has really grown into this space."

The dwindling congregation, down to about 100 members now, accepted the offer. Never mind that Cimino had no money to make the purchase or the needed renovations, with a total price tag of about $3 million.

"I believe you put the vision first," he says, "and if it's solid, people will line up behind it."

That belief seemed fully justified with the $1 million gift from Emile and Marie-Jose Schneiter of Switzerland, who have two grandchildren in the choir.

The purchase deal, which turns over the church and its grounds to the choir in November, will allow the congregation to lease back space for weekly church services for the next 50 years.

For its part, the congregation will hold the mortgage -- at zero interest. Day care and preschool programs that the church has long offered to the community will also continue.

"If this church had been sold to another congregation, those services probably would have had to go," Cimino says, "and we would have had to go. We now have a home forever."

But not an exclusive one.

"It will be a place where other arts groups can congregate, rehearse and perform," Cimino says. "We will try our best to make this a center for the community. I truly believe this building was not meant to be quiet."

The boys, who descend on the church two or three times a week for rehearsals, do their best to prove that.

Every available space is put to use. The larger rooms accommodate each component of the organization.

There's the Training Choir for newcomers, the Treble Choir for unchanged voices, and the Concert Choir for more advanced singers of all ages.

Then there's the group for boys who experience the inevitable vocal side effect of puberty.

"In many boy choirs, when your voice changes, you're gone," says administrative director Jamie Adrian. "Here, we have the Changed Voices Choir, with about 25 in it now. They're mentors to the little ones, who really look up to them."

Finally, there's the Tour Choir for the most accomplished members of all ages. This group will make its third concert trip to Europe this summer.

"A lot of boys don't have the chance to travel to different states, let alone different countries," says Gross.

Other nooks and crannies in the large complex at St. Matthew, including part of the bell tower, are put into service, too -- for one-on-one sessions in music theory or voice lessons; and to provide places for boys' parents to hang out during all that activity (many of those parents drive 45 minutes to an hour each way to get their sons to rehearsal).

Choir members pay $1,250 a year in tuition, less than half of what it costs to train each one (about a third of them receive financial aid, Adrian says). With a $500,000 annual budget, which includes salaries for three full-time and several part-time staffers, fundraising is a constant priority.

The tradition of youths in choral groups, carried on most famously by the Vienna Boys' Choir, goes back centuries. The sound of boy sopranos and altos can be ethereal; a chorus of boys and young males has a distinctively appealing timbre as well.

"It's a sound that must be kept alive," Cimino says.

Roger Lark, chairman of the choir's board of directors, agrees.

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