By Chuck Wiser, I write the words to share what my eyes see and my heart feels
A few weeks ago, I wrote an article in which I referred to the Genesee Valley Chorus and my participation with it in the past tense. It, and my appearance therein, is now in the “present tense”. After the Pandemic induced two-year hiatus, the chorus is now up and active, and filling the valley with its joyous musical sounds once again. The chorus will commence preparations for public appearances, and consistent with an abundance of caution, vaccination is required but unvaccinated participants will still be accepted but masks will be required for those not vaccinated.
In anticipation of the writing of this article I reached out to the many year director of the Chorus Norma Bartlett for some Historical information to refresh (or correct) my recollection of the establishment of the chorus and some updates on activities through the years. I had the good fortune to have been a charter member of the chorus joining in with the celebration of our Bicentennial year 1976. As noted in my earlier article, I had to back away from nearly all extra-curricular activities in the early 80’s as my career took an abrupt detour and followed the virgin territory trail as a college professor. When you have to learn what you are teaching, as you do it, there isn’t time left for much else.
Noting from Mrs. Bartlett’s History of the Genesee Valley Chorus, “The Genesee Valley Chorus was first organized in the fall of 1975 as “The Wellsville Bicentennial Chorus” when patriotic Americans throughout the country were planning activities to celebrate the upcoming Bicentennial”.
The performance of the first major concert featuring authentic early American music in the spring of 1976, was made possible by the donations of music by the JCPenney company. John Molinari, then the Wellsville Central School band director and his, wife Iris, also a noted musician,volunteered their musical leadership. The enthusiasm and momentum of members of the fledgling group blended and culminated into the Genesee Valley Chorus in 1977. Financial challenges were eventually met by obtaining an “Arts” support grant from the New York State Council on the Arts. This financial support was renewed annually until gradually the group became self-sustaining thanks to the generosity of the attending audiences and patrons.
The group, despite the two-year lapse due to the Pandemic, has continued with widespread public acclaim and membership participation from throughout the Southwestern New York counties and even Northwestern Pennsylvania. Over the first four and a half decades the chorus has maintained a substantial level of membership numbering in the dozens and featuring only 9 different directors, many serving alternating or supporting terms of several years. The current director, Norma Bartlett, has served either as a co-director of more “Norma-ly” as the sole director since 2006.
Former Directors include the following, with the accompanists, although equally crucial to the musical performance, noted in parenthesis: John Molinari (Iris Molinari), Anthony Cappadonia (Carole Aldrich), David Dunbar (Peg Dunbar), Lorrene Adams (JoAnn Brown), Jack Darr (Suzanne May, Barbara Carter, Carole Aldrich), Richard Kennedy (Barbara Carter), Dale Miller (Barbara Carter), Kay Outwin (Carole Aldrich), Norma Bartlett (Carole Aldrich & Amanda Robbins).
When I began “Formal” singing with the chorus in 1975 I was at first very reluctant and initially overwhelmed. I had no music training whatsoever. I thought I could sing but my high school interests took me elsewhere than chorus or band. The Genesee Valley chorus was built, and is maintained, not on members being musical professionals, but rather on the premise that you enjoy music and would like to sing. I was not in that boat of hesitancy alone. John Molinari opened his house to the few of us that needed and wanted to learn a little about singing and he tutored us enough to get us through the initial performance. I thought I could carry a tune and all former musical directors have been too polite or considerate to tell me otherwise. If asked to make the musical pitch sound of the musical note “G” My reply still, would be “Geeeeeeeee”. Thus, the chorus consists of people with a variety of musical backgrounds and levels of expertise, but who love to sing.
Despite those varied backgrounds and level of “talent” the group is very diverse, flexible and able to adapt to and enjoy a variety of musical genre. This flexibility and the commitment of the chorus members, the accompanists and the directors, allows for musical presentations ranging from the frivolous and fun of Country Western and the 50’s Bee Bop, to the solemnity and musical sophistication of Vivaldi’s Gloria, Handel’s Messiah and Mozart’s Requiem.
Each of the Directors brings a vast knowledge and talent to what must at times, for them, be an unenviable task. Their love of music both performing and directing, is obvious to all. Each has their own style and characteristics, and I suspect their own preference somewhat, but all have been willing to share their flexibility with the chorus. All of the Directors strive for the participant’s knowledge and adherence to musical standards and practices but typically each might be a little more adamant or strict about certain musical characteristics. Some might be a little more “dictatorly” strict about the mechanics of singing such as breath control, consonant pronunciation and phrase ending cleanly. Others might be a little more forgiving of minor imperfections in that area, focusing on the “mood” of a musical composition or the atmosphere that the “message of the song” creates.
Over the course of the history of the chorus there have been many significant accomplishments or events. None of these would have been possible without the commitment and capabilities of the group. Normal activities include the annual or semi-annual formal concerts, typically each with a “theme” of varied music and even costuming or attire. Other mostly local events, might consist of Variety Shows, Dessert Theatres, Fundraisers for other organizations, Seasonal church services such as Thanksgiving and Good Friday, Nursing Home sing outs, The Allegany County Fair (with the challenging location between the agricultural activities and the Grandstand performance), American Legion Flag Burning, Moving Wall presentations and many others.
The Chorus typically would perform 8 to 12 performances per year. One particularly rewarding but strenuous year the chorus experienced in the early 80’s was under Anthony Cappadonia, formerly the Musical Director at Alfred State College. “Cappy” had us memorize the music which is the norm for his college choirs but unusual for a mixed “part time” adult chorus. That year we had 22 performances, including a snowstorm visit to the Consistory in Coudersport, PA. In addition to those “formal” performances there was typically an afterglow at such locations as the Cameo Restaurant in Wellsville where the chorus would do an impromptu sing out for the patrons of the establishment.
Among the many more challenging, but rewarding, Choral performances or activities over these many decades, that are often discussed when a group of members reminisce, are the performances performed in partnership with the Wellsville Performing Arts Orchestra. They included Gloria, Messiah and the Requiem noted above as well as Britten’s Ceremony of Carols. One individual who was instrumental in the development and performance of the earliest of these and who was a guiding light behind the others, was Wellsville Central School’s Musical Director John Darr, affectionately known and remembered as “Jack”. Jack’s participation and influence was felt for over 20 years of the Chorus’ history. Sadly, Jack passed away in 2020 but he left his mark on Wellsville music in general and on the Genesee Valley Chorus in particular. Mrs. Bartlett picked up where Jack’s musical direction left off and continues.
In addition to that aforementioned marathon year of 22 performances, “Cappy” was also responsible for another major accomplishment that goes on to the “record track” of Chorus activities. In 1980 he had us undertake the making a “vinyl” recording of Whenever We Rememberproduced by Mark Custom Recordings. The artwork and cover design was a creation of Thomas O’Grady, renowned local artist and who was also a notable charter member of the Chorus. The record was popular enough to warrant going into a second production run and still in possession of many chorus members.
Early in the 80’s in what I believe was my last year until fairly recently as a full-time member of the chorus, we had an opportunity while under the direction of Dave Dunbar. The Chorus was invited to participate in the annual New York State School Music Association Conference. This is an annual event that collects thousands of school music professionals at the Concord Resort in the Catskills. The invitation followed submission and evaluation of a recorded performance for their acceptance and invitation. Being able to undertake such an ambitious goal, was a challenge to the group and the numerous generous benefactors who gave the chorus donations to offset the trip and overnight stay at the Concord.
As the song lyric goes… “Memories are made of this”
The Genesee Valley Chorus has now resumed practices and are already planning a Memorial Day type performance to be performed around that day. The Chorus meets at 7:00 PM each Tuesday at the Grace United Church in Wellsville, NY. Questions or interest can be directed to the Director Norma Bartlett (585-593-4962) or Joyce Krupnick (585-593-4828.)