Several Keene Chorale members missed their cues at the group’s Oct. 6 gathering — hardly surprising, given that the choir only recently began rehearsing for its spring concert. Rather than an unfamiliar composition, however, the mute function on Zoom was to blame.
Last week’s session was the group’s second virtual meeting this fall as it resumes operations during the COVID-19 pandemic despite a number of technical and logistical challenges.
The Keene Chorale typically performs twice each year — in December and April or May — with about three months of weekly rehearsals before each concert, according to Cailin Marcel Manson, who is in his fifth year as the choir’s music director. This year, it has elongated that schedule and plans to meet virtually twice a month before having just one recital, in May.
The choir canceled its spring 2020 concert in April due to the public health crisis. Manson, 38, who oversees the music performance concentration at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., and also directs the school’s concert choir and chamber chorus, said the Keene Chorale had been scheduled to perform Mozart’s “Requiem.”
“I think we had learned more than half of it at the time we had to start shutting things down,” he said.
Manson added that he worked with the choir’s board of directors over the summer to develop a plan for resuming rehearsals safely. The group has typically rehearsed at the Unitarian Universalist Church on Washington Street in Keene, according to Board President Don LeRoy.
Public health experts have identified singing in groups as particularly likely to spread the novel coronavirus, due to the high volume of aerosol particles that singers exhale.
Last month, choir members began learning their parts of George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah” from instructive materials available online, said Kate Rantilla of Jaffrey, a board member and the choir’s immediate past president. She explained that after having weekly rehearsals in previous years, the choir will meet via Zoom twice a month until at least early 2021 — once to rehearse with the choir’s piano accompanist, Vladimir Odinokikh, and once to review their preparations with Manson.
“I think that we’ve found a solution that seems to be working for us,” Rantilla said. “The majority of it has to do with Cailin’s ability to connect with people, even [over] video.”
Enrollment in the Keene Chorale, which does not require its members to audition, is down to fewer than 60 people, from its usual number of 65 to 80, she noted. Registration is still open, however, and Rantilla said she expects people to continue joining the choir into January.
As a former web developer for Intelstat Corporation, a satellite communications provider, Rantilla is responsible for managing Keene Chorale’s website. That job has taken on added responsibility this year because members must download their sheet music — three to four pieces each month, she said — as well as prerecorded singing instructions from Manson and audio files amplifying their roles over the ensemble, which can help as they practice alone.
“This [audio tutorial] is great because you’re singing with an orchestra,” Rantilla said. “... It’s a very complete system. We would use it anyway, even if we were rehearsing every week.”
Instead, the Keene Chorale began holding once-a-month practice sessions with Odinokikh on Sept. 29. Rantilla explained that the rehearsals are for choir members to sing with live music rather than to practice as a group, since they will be muted to avoid audio discrepancies over Zoom.
“I went into that first one with a little bit of trepidation, but ... even though we could only hear ourselves sing, we all knew that everybody else was singing at the same time,” she said. “It still felt good to be singing and seeing everybody.”
The group will also meet once a month with Manson to clear up any confusion from the rehearsals.
About three dozen members tuned in at 7 p.m. on Oct. 6 for the first of those virtual sessions. Manson divided attendees by voice type — soprano, alto, tenor and bass — and sent them into respective “breakout rooms” on the Zoom call before resuming the group discussion to address their questions.
Several singers mentioned their concerns with the remote format, calling the first rehearsal “tedious” and out of sync. Suzanne Coble of Harrisville told other alto section members she was “terrified that at any moment [she] would be unmuted.”
Members also praised Manson and Odinokikh and said learning the pieces on their own seems like an adequate solution.
“I think this is going to work as well as it possibly can,” said Dick Goettle of Fitzwilliam.
But after some COVID-related comments, the questions focused on more ordinary topics. Manson told choir members how to interpret a 16th note, advised them on pronouncing lyrics in the 18th-century arrangement, offered suggestions for its tempo and clarified their cues, among other items.
And more normalcy could be coming in late March or early April, when the Keene Chorale may resume in-person rehearsals if it is permitted under COVID-19 safety guidelines, according to Rantilla. She explained that the group’s board of directors is exploring options to hold its May concert in a “nontraditional space,” such as the ground floor of a parking garage, if an indoor space would be infeasible.
“[It] is a very ambitious thing [because] for the majority of the year, we won’t have sung together,” she said. “... We’ve all performed the ‘Messiah’ on numerous occasions but never with Cailin. For that, I would do just about anything because his interpretation of things is extraordinary.”