Theater & Arts

Fresno Community Chorus celebrates 60 years of song

Thirty. Sixty. Ninety. Numbers so elegantly spaced they almost sing.

At age 30, back in 1956, John Donaldson was there for the very first rehearsal of the newly founded Fresno Community Chorus.

At age 60, he celebrated his birthday in 1986 by performing Bach’s Mass in B minor with the chorus. (“It was the best birthday I ever had,” he says.)

At age 90, he will sing the world premiere of a piece commissioned for the 60th anniversary of the chorus.

With just two breaks for when he moved out of the country for sabbaticals, Donaldson has been a member of the chorus for nearly all those 60 years. Like all amateur singers, he did a lot of things besides bury himself in a score: He was a physics professor, member of the Fresno County Board of Supervisors, church choir director. But those regular Tuesday night rehearsals were essential to him. They rolled around like clockwork, became part of the fabric of his existence.

“It’s something you build your life around,” Donaldson says.

A choir is special, no matter if it’s a handful of singers offering a few halting harmonies in church or a 200-voice phalanx of supremely prepared vocalists booming through the great works of the choral music repertoire.

Perhaps it’s because the first human instruments were our voices. To vocalize with someone else – to breathe, phrase and enunciate as one – feels somehow basic and pure, even meditative. Musicians of all stripes, from garage bands to symphony orchestras, know what it’s like to sync with their fellow players. But when you hear a choir sing, there’s a special bond between the singers. It’s the most elemental form of communication.

“Singers are an emotional bunch,” says Anna Hamre, who has conducted the group since 2002.

The full chorus – the official name is now the Fresno Community Chorus Master Chorale – will celebrate its anniversary Sunday, March 6, with a program that includes a commissioned work titled “Like Streams We Gather.” The 200-member ensemble, performing with a 40-piece orchestra, will present several pieces relevant to its history, including the J.S. Bach cantata “Christ lag in Todes Banden,” sung at the inaugural concert 60 years ago. Several of the group’s 14 former conductors will be in attendance, including Gary Unruh, Mark Bennett and Nicola Iacovetti.

The numbers over the years are impressive: Tens of thousands of audience members, more than a thousand singers, hundreds of concerts, tours all over the world, all the great choral works performed. There have been many changes through the decades, of course. (The chorus used to rehearse on Monday nights, but then a new thing called Monday Night Football came around, prompting the change to Tuesday.) The biggest change was the construction of the gorgeous new Shaghoian Hall, an acoustic marvel, where the chorus now performs.

But things stay the same, too.

“This love for singing, this love for music,” says Catherine Walker, 76, another longtime member. She accompanied the ensemble on piano and organ over the years and still sings with the group. “Why else would we have done this so long?”

Trip to China

I have a personal connection to this story. I sang with the Fresno Community Chorus back in the mid-1990s for several years, and I traveled with it on separate tours to China and then to France and Israel, under the direction of Unruh, who had a special talent for cross-cultural exchanges. (Over the decades the chorus has traveled to England, Scandinavia, Italy, Greece and twice to New York’s Carnegie Hall.)

When we arrived in the picturesque Chinese city of Suzhou in 1996, our visit coincided with a spike in anti-American sentiment in China. We’d been scheduled to perform in one location in Suzhou, but after rumors of an anti-American demonstration, authorities at the last minute moved to another venue – one so new there was a thick layer of construction dust on the ground and electrical wires dangling over our heads on stage.

Arthur Huff, who conducted the chorus from 1964 to 1985 (and filled in now and then after that), and at 88, is still an enthusiastic singer, remembers the audience at that concert was perhaps the most different in the group’s history. Most people who go to a choral concert have some experience with this kind of music. This one didn’t.

“The Chinese took buses out into the countryside, loaded them up with all the peasants they could find, and brought them in to pack the house. Here was an audience who had absolutely no idea what we were doing on stage, no exposure to this kind of music.”

Yet choral music can bridge the gap between cultures in a way few other forms of communication can. After the concert, some audience members stayed afterward and sang Christmas carols with the Fresno group, with Walker accompanying on piano. They were the only songs everyone knew.

When Hamre came to Fresno State – which is a partner with the chorus – she relished the opportunity to work with such a large and dedicated community ensemble because it gave her the chance to perform some of the great works of the ages that require large numbers, such as the Mozart Requiem and Haydn’s “The Creation” oratorio.

She loves working with the university ensembles she conducts, such as the Fresno State Concert Choir, because it means she gets to shape young musicians’ lives. But she has a special place in her heart for the community chorus.

There are better ensembles in the country, of course, made up of professionals collecting paychecks. But when it comes to heart, a community group can be hard to beat.

“When you’re working with an amateur group, they are there because they love it,” Hamre says. “It’s an immense honor. People’s most valuable possession is their time. It’s more important than money. How you spend your time is what your life means to you.”

High quality

Another current member of the chorus was at that first rehearsal 60 years ago. But Laverne Cottet didn’t take the same path as Donaldson, who has spent most of his life in Fresno. Cottet was a 20-year-old Fresno State student studying music in 1956. Her mother drove her to rehearsal – something about insurance, Cottet remembers with a laugh.

She sang with the ensemble for a few years, and when she graduated with degrees in music and art, she headed to the East Coast for a life that included a master’s degree (in liturgical music from Catholic University in Washington, D.C.) and a stint in the U.S. Navy. During that time she remained heavily involved in choral music, singing in top-notch ensembles that often performed in New York.

In 1984 she came back to live in Fresno to care for an elderly uncle, and she rejoined the chorus in 1986. The thing that excited her, she says, is that the chorus had only gotten better. She’s a serious singer. She knows what sounds good.

“To be able to sing top-level music has been really wonderful,” she says.

The highlight of the 60th anniversary concert will be the commissioned work. Chorus member Glady Ruiz, who dedicates the work to Hamre, wrote the text. Joungmin Sur, the group’s “collaborative pianist” – sort of like a composer-in-residence – composed the music.

Ruiz stood before the chorus last fall and read the poem for the first time. People choked up when they heard this:

Take up the verse, you who would stumble;

join the refrain, you who would speak. Whisper

hope, life, and compassion: drink in

joy, the eternal, and sing.

Like streams we gather, one river

song: we find home. Valley chorus,

fill the air with joyful song.

“It was electric,” Hamre says.

A stream of voices over the years, all swirling and sloshing together into a powerhouse of song. To John Donaldson, Laverne Cottet, Arthur Huff, Catherine Walker and all the singers over six decades: Your voices are part of that mighty river. Long may it flow.

Fresno Community Chorus Master Chorale

Concert preview

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