THE MAKING OF A POPULAR CHOIR

November 30, 2002 12:00 am
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By SHARON KANNA

Special to The Pilot

It's a Tuesday night at St. Timothy's Episcopal Church in Brookings, and The ORCA Singers rehearsal is beginning.

Charlotte Heatherly, its director, is standing by Jerry Moffit, seated at the piano. "Jerry just fixed the C-sharp on the piano – let's give Jerry a big round of applause!" Heatherly shouts. There is a smattering of applause as some singers are readying their music, others are trickling in.

"I have such fun things planned for you tonight," she says. "So take out a hymnal, and let's whine!" The singers pull an Episcopal hymnal from the pew in front of them as if it were the most natural request for a community chorus.

They are accustomed to the unexpected from Heatherly. "This is kind of like chanting," she states. "And I'll be the first person to admit I didn't grow up in a chanting background. This is chanting in four-part harmony. And think, ‘Mo-ther Rus-sia!'"

Later she has them humming a song. "I shouldn't hear any gasping," she admonishes. "Get your tongue out of the way; the tongue is a busybody.

ORCA has been in existence almost exactly four years. "We've been exceedingly well received by the public," said Barbara Schlenz, a soprano who has been with the group since the start. "All our concerts have been filled to capacity."

Heatherly moved to Brookings from Baltimore, Maryland in 1996, and two years later, fall of 1998, The ORCA Singers was formed.

The nucleus of the chorus came from a group of about 15 people directed by Don Berger that met at Ora Hess' house in Harbor to sing, said Heatherly. "The core group is where I met Sue Gold, Wendy Saville, Bob Ward and Ora Hess."

Sue Gold, soprano, said Berger, who had just retired to Brookings, "thought it would be kind of fun to get together. He was a director of music who graduated from Juilliard." They sang at a few functions, including a recognition reception for a founder of Friends of Music. She doesn't recall if the fledgling group even had a name.

Shortly after the singers began meeting, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints advertised in the community for all interested singers to participate in The Messiah. Most of Berger's group sang in the production that Christmas of 1997. "We had such a good time doing it that the following spring we did the Mozart Requiem (also presented by the Morman church)," Heatherly said.

At the time, Betty Gailband was the piano accompanist in town, and had accompanied the singers on both of the church presentations, Heatherly said. "Betty Gailband and I would talk and say, ‘Oh, wouldn't it be nice if there were a permanent chorus in town.' "

Heatherly said all she wanted to do was sing. She didn't want to direct. But she thought, "If there was going to be a choral group in town, it looked like I'd have to direct." She had directed church choirs, but never a choral group.

Gailband took the only paid position in the choral group and played the piano for ORCA until she moved away last year. Jerry Moffit, music teacher at Brookings-Harbor High School, took her place.

ORCA gave its' first concert that December at Brookings-Harbor High School. "We were very well-received," Heatherly said. "I think we had 100 people (in the audience), and I was thrilled.

"It was smaller and we hadn't started to jell as a chorus. We were still learning how to sing as a unit instead as individuals. (Now) we're starting to get a core group, which makes it nice."

Heatherly said Southwestern Oregon Community College sponsors The ORCA Singers. "We're a non-credit course that they offer, and so they pay Jerry's (the piano player) salary. We also have access to the music library at SWOCC in Coos Bay."

Schlenz thought of the name ORCA Singers. "ORCA was a name that I suggested because of the people of Oregon and California (which members are comprised of), and because of the whales we have," she said.

Heatherly has them take out their music, "Lo, How a Rose e'er Blooming." With a grin, she starts singing it like a hillbilly, then she and the singers are laughing. "Oh, yah, let's get the Draino!" she says, presumably to clear the singer's "pipes." More laughter.

"She's a lot of fun," Schlenz said of Heatherly. And everyone else interviewed agreed that rehearsals are just plain fun. But everyone agreed that they are also hard work.

"It's a little more work than some people are willing to put into it, and some people drop out," said soprano Rae Hoff. "Music groups are a commitment. And if you're not there every week, it's not fair to you or the group."

"I think it's reasonable that Charlotte expects a little more of us now that we're more mature (have been together for four years), said Stephen Graves, a bass who has also been with ORCA from the beginning. "She holds us to a relatively high standard." His wife, Patty, an alto, added that "she doesn't let us get away with nonsense."

Looking back over the last four years, Patty sees one distressing thing. "Unfortunately, We've lost a lot of good people. They've moved and their jobs prevent them from coming." "We've lost a couple of strong singers in two important sections – in tenor and bass," said Signa Fischer, a soprano also with ORCA from its' beginning.

Heatherly has them pull out sheet music for a Latin song, "Ubi caritas". "This piece is a real jewel – you've got to trust me on this," she says. "It's worth the trouble to learn it. I don't know if Mr. Durufle did this or not (the arrangement), but I don't care; he's dead." Laughter erupts from the group.

"Our concerts are really an eclectic mix of styles," Heatherly said. " You might hear gospels or spirituals, a classical Mozart and swing all in the same concert."

She is not afraid to throw in some non-musical elements. She has been known to have someone read a poem, or a Civil War letter from a soldier to his wife. "I like poetry, and I like to find readings that give a common thread, that touch my heart, and share them with the audience."

"I've been singing in choruses continually since I was 14-years-old," said Heatherly. "I've sung with church choirs, community choruses, and with the Baltimore Symphony Chorus.

"I've had the opportunity to learn from the finest people in the world – Robert Shaw, Margaret Hillis, director of the Chicago Symphony Chorus, and Ed Polochick, director of the Baltimore Symphony Chorus. They were fabulous teachers, and I soaked up what they had to teach."

When she's not busy directing, you'll find Heatherly at Azalea Middle School working with children. She's an aide in the language arts department. "I work with students who need extra help with organizational and study skills," she said.

Who can join ORCA? "Ideally, a singer will have had some choral experience, and can read music," Heatherly said. "Often we get singers who have neither one of those, but who have a really good ear for music, and can sing. I can teach them to read music."

Can she teach anyone to sing? "I'll tell you what my voice teacher told me," she said. "If you can hear well, and there's nothing wrong with your vocal chords, you can sing. Does that mean you're going to sing at the Met? I can't guaranty that. But I can guaranty that you can sing."

Rose Ramos, an alto who has also been with ORCA from the start, said, "I'm not what you call a singer. I've never had a lot of formal training." She said Charlotte teaches amateur singers like her "in a way where you feel like she's not picking on you."

Gold said, "Charlotte's really good. She's able to pull out of people who don't know how to sing something that's really good, really surprising."

Heatherly added, though, that "someone who does not read music would be at a loss to come in right now." They are well into the Christmas production. She advised that person to wait until January 8, the beginning of spring performance rehearsal, when she can teach him or her to read music.

"We don't charge for our concerts because it's our gift to the community," she said. All their performances are held at the Mormon church on Elk Drive. "The acoustics in there are great and they're very accommodating. We have at least two performances (yearly). It depends if there's a special occasion."

Heatherly did not want her picture taken. The ORCA Singers is really about the singers, not her, she said. "I've seen some of these people drag themselves to ORCA from Crescent City and Smith River in the winter, when it's blowing 30 m.p.h. and rain's coming sideways. She said she's humbled by that devotion.

"They come in and they shift gears and the tension leaves their body, and they're in the moment of music."

"My goal is to see the group develop so that it is autonomous, so that it can run itself, no matter who the director is. It is not my group.

"The Curry Del Norte Orchestra is still intact and they've had three different conductors since I've been here. And that's what I'd like to have happen with ORCA. That would be a good legacy, don't you think?"