Columbia Pro Cantare celebrates its 30th birthday with a concert this weekend

An enduring song

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 more local audience members, and her advertisements drew more than 100 singers in a month.

Columbia Pro Cantare ended up performing 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 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 Dvorak'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.

The inclusion of Czech music is fitting, Dawson said, because early on she wanted the chorus to perform works other choruses were not doing. Inspired by her Czech heritage, she has led the Pro Cantare in dozens of performances - including 22 concerts in Baltimore and Washington - of Czech choral works.

Dawson, the group's artistic director, said Czech is a difficult language for the singers and that the pieces are usually unfamiliar to audiences. But, she said "once you sit and listen to them, there is nothing inaccessible about the music. The music is appealing."

Once the Jim Rouse Theatre at Wilde Lake High School was built and the chorus was able to perform more often in Columbia, it turned to other ethnic groups for inspiration, performing programs of Irish, African American and Jewish music.

It has also embraced staples of classical music by Mozart, Verdi, Brahms 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.

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

Dawson said questionnaires to the membership have revealed a variety of roles the chorus plays. "For some, it's their only [connection to] community." She said. "They lead such busy lives. For some people it's their group therapy, for others it's their chance to be part of something larger than themselves."

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."

He said he particularly appreciates the way Dawson helps the singers visualize techniques and improve their technical abilities. He also said her choice of lesser-known repertoire "gives me a chance to broaden and expand my horizons, although there is nothing better than some of the classics that are gorgeous the moment they come out of your mouth."

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 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."

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 for other local arts groups: finding the moneyand sustaining the organization to carry on into the future.

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