After 30 years, chorus is still in harmony

Columbia Pro Cantare to celebrate its anniversary with weekend concert

May 04, 2007|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,sun reporter

In 1977, Columbia resident Frances Motyca Dawson was concerned about the sparse audiences turning out for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's summer season at Merriweather Post Pavilion.

She sold the orchestra on the idea of a local chorus to sing with the BSO in order to attract a bigger audience, and her advertisements drew more than 100 singers in a month.

The Columbia Pro Cantare performed with the orchestra at Goucher College instead of the pavilion when the Columbia arrangement was canceled for the year. But, Dawson said, "It still became apparent we had a great chorus on our hands."

The symphony is long gone from Merriweather, but the Columbia Pro Cantare has sustained for 30 years, combining its volunteer singers with professional soloists and instrumentalists to perform challenging classical choral music.

It will celebrate its three-decade milestone tomorrow with a concert at the Jim Rouse Theatre in Columbia. The program will include Antonin Dvolak's Te Deum, Ralph Vaughan Williams' Serenade to Music and Czech composer Karel Ruzicka's Celebration Jazz Mass, led by the composer and his son.

. Inspired by her own Czech heritage, she has led the Pro Cantare in dozens of performances -- including 22 concerts in Baltimore and Washington, D.C. -- of choral works from that area.

The chorus has also embraced staples of classical music by Mozart, Verdi, Brahams and others, and added a popular annual performance of Handel's Messiah at Christmastime. It has commissioned 13 new choral works over the years, toured internationally, and added a chamber chorus to perform in smaller venues as well.

"There were so many people here who had sung in high school and college and community groups," Dawson said. "They needed an outlet."

Zane Scott lives in southern Virginia and spends the work week with a management consulting firm near Fort Meade.

A singer and instrumentalist since childhood, Scott was looking for a challenging chorus about four years ago because "with singing, especially, its kind of use it or lose it."

Duncan MacDonald of Elkridge said, "One of the things that has kept me interested, among many, is the fact that we do sing such great music," he said. "We always have fabulous soloists and good orchestras."

He missed the first Pro Cantare concert, but in the fall of 1977 he went to a rehearsal and, "I said ... this is some good quality singing. And it's gotten better ever since."

According to annual reports, 20 percent to 30 percent of the chorus' audience comes from outside the county, said Coleen West, executive director of the Howard County Arts Council, which gives the Pro Cantare annual grants.

"They have a reputation that goes beyond our borders," West said. "It certainly is considered nationally one of the outstanding choral groups as well."

West said Dawson is at the heart of that reputation.

"Her passion and enthusiasm is contagious, and that is what attracts people to the organization," West said.

Dawson said she loved choral music throughout her education at the Peabody Conservatory, where she earned an undergraduate degree in piano and a master's degree in choral conducting.

She was the chorus director of the Peabody Opera Art Theater in its first year and later started the Louisville Choral Arts Society. She has taught choral music at schools in Baltimore, Virginia and Pennsylvania and, most recently, at Glenelg Country School in Glenwood.

The Pro Cantare's biggest challenge, she said, is the same as other local arts groups: securing the funding and the organization to carry on into the future.

The chorus has grown to include a professional executive director and an active volunteer board who are putting plans in place to find a successor at some point. But Dawson continues to be the driving artistic force and to provide a base of operations (and lots of music storage) in her Columbia home.

For now, Dawson said she continues to be fascinated by the variety of choral music the Pro Cantare can tap into.

"When all is said and done, and the performance takes place, there is nothing that can replace the chorus, orchestra and soloist that are in front of you," she said.

The anniversary concert will include a free lecture at 7 p.m. and conclude with a party at the Luna C Grille in Clarksville. Information: 410-799-9321 or

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