Swan song for youth chorus?

Handel Choir of Baltimore says it will disband children's group

December 14, 2008|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

The faces were pink with the season's cold. The eyes - all 50, in fact - were as wide as saucers, following every sweep of the conductor's hand.

"Let the music that you play/ Make you joyful all the day," trilled voices that sounded angelic as they soared to the rafters of the old church.

At yesterday's rehearsal of the Handel Children's Choir, a vocal group for kids ages 4 to 17, spirits seemed high, given the news the organization had just gotten.

The Handel Choir of Baltimore announced last week that it would disband the children's group after eight largely successful years.

Today's concert, the children's choir's annual holiday program, could be its last.

"The [current] economic downturn has severely affected so many arts organizations," said Helen Jones, president of the Handel Choir's board of trustees, which made the decision last month. "Nobody, nobody ever wants to cut anything that involves children. The board thought long and hard about what we had to do to preserve the [larger] organization."

The economic downturn also hit the Baltimore Opera Company, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy hours before Jones made the announcement about the children's choir after a Monday rehearsal.

In a letter sent to supporters and parents, board members said ticket sales for the Handel Choir's fall concerts were lower than expected, an early fall fundraising appeal missed its target by 50 percent, and the Maryland State Arts Council had cut its grant to the organization by 12.5 percent.

In addition, individual gifts were lagging.

Jones estimated that the children's group consumed 10 percent of the parent organization's budget. Terminating it was just one of several drastic measures taken, she said.

The board also laid off or furloughed all office staff except for artistic director Melinda O'Neal, leaving volunteers to run the Clipper Mill headquarters until further notice.

Jones called the cuts necessary just to keep the Handel Choir of Baltimore - an acclaimed community-based oratorio society that has performed the Messiah every year since 1935 - alive through the end of the year.

The board will decide the future of the whole organization in early 2009, when results of its current fundraising campaign and ticket revenues from this year's Messiah are known.

Jones believes that the trimmed-down operation will save the parent choir at least through next year. She said an anonymous patron has pledged a $25,000 matching grant.

Since its birth in 2000, the Handel Children's Choir has worked with youths from around the area, teaching basic musicianship and vocal technique while stressing music from classical through contemporary.

Yesterday, parents praised the educational component of the program.

Nicole Schultheis, mother of singer Cecile Walton, 12, said choir conductor Molly Day Peterson has a magic teaching touch. Other parents said the group offers a supportive, stress-free environment, even during auditions.

"Molly is so sweet; she is wonderful with children," said Nzinga Ayo-Mamadi, mother of vocalists Ayodele LaVeau, 9, and MaKinde LaVeau, 6. "She has made this a completely positive experience."

Once parents got over their shock, they began to act. During the past week, more than 30 coalesced into a group determined to save the children's choir, whether the Handel Choir of Baltimore can help them out or not.

Even as the children rehearsed "Fum Fum Fum" and other seasonal songs yesterday, Schultheis, an attorney, led the parents through a meeting at which they approved a mission statement and elected five officers.

Jones, who sings in the adult choir, said Messiah sold out this year.

Sales for today's show by the kids have been OK, she said. Still, she's hoping for a sellout, which could only help the cause.

"We all want to keep this music alive for kids," she said. "Tickets are available. Tickets are always available."

Tickets for today's concert of the Handel Children's Choir at 4 p.m. at the First English Lutheran Church, Charles and 39th streets, can be purchased online at brownpapertickets.com/event/42711 or at the door. Cost: $10.

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