Musica Sacra

Mary Beekman, Director

In February 2003, Boston Singers Resource sat down with Mary to chat about Musica Sacra, her influences, and her vision for the group.

Q & A With Mary Beekman

Boston Singers Resource: Has your CD been released, yet? What prompted you to record this particular program on CD?

Mary Beekman: Love, Lust and Laudations: Flemish Choral Music of the High Renaissance is the title. We wanted to make a CD to sell commercially and were looking for a corner of the market in which we would excel and which would as yet be unoccupied. The music on this CD was first performed to complement an exhibit of prints of Peter Breugel the Elder which was mounted by the Harvard University Fogg Art Museum. Most of the secular works and a few of the sacred works have never been recorded; some of them may not have been heard for several centuries.

BSR: Can you give me a little history of Musica Sacra before you arrived? Who were the conductors? How did Musical Sacra start?

MB: [Though] founded in 1958 to perform Renaissance sacred choral music at University Lutheran Church in Harvard Square, the group soon began to include music, both sacred and secular, from any era. Former conductors include Yuko Hayashi, Marion Ruhl Metson, and Lenora McCroskey.

BSR: What drew you to Musica Sacra in 1979?

MB: The opportunity to work with very talented singers in an already established group. Prior to that time I had conducted the Harvard-Radcliffe Graduate Chorale, an unauditioned group of 100 plus singers. The smaller size of Musica Sacra appealed to me as well; people singing in a smaller group usually have a high level of personal responsibility and like challenge. As I put it, "If, upon learning on concert day that every other alto is sick and you alone will be representing the line, your reaction is, 'oh, boy!,' then we,re the group for you!"

BSR: Did you study conducting at Harvard and [New England Conservatory]?

MB: My biggest influence in becoming a conductor was to sing under John Ferris, then Harvard University's Organist and Choirmaster, for my four years as an undergraduate. I sang 7 days a week under him with many talented people who also sang in the choir. Some of these include Phil Kelsey, who conducted Cantata Singers at that time, and Gerry Moshell, who presently is the Director of Choral Activities at Trinity College in Hartford. At that time I lived to be a choral singer and I was already becoming discouraged about having to leave the choir. I couldn't imagine another chorus being as satisfying to sing in. At that time Harvard had no courses in the performing arts; there was certainly no way to study conducting. I did audit a course that John taught at Harvard Summer School and, because of that, one day he asked me to warm up the choir for him. A singer he respected said "She can warm us up anytime," and my career was launched!

I went to NEC to study organ with Yuko Hayashi. While there I took every conducting course offered: "Conducting from the organ" with Don Teeters, "Choral Conducting" with Lorna Cooke da Varon, and "Orchestral Conducting" with Richard Pittman. I figured a graduate degree in organ was more concrete than one in choral conducting, but I tried to take advantage of the opportunities to learn conducting. It was great, because I had a church job with a choir and the Graduate Chorale, so I was getting tons of hands-on experience, which to me is equally, if not more, valuable. For 3 summers I went to work with Robert Shaw and Robert Fountain of Oberlin and U of Wisconsin, so I really saw a lot of conducting styles.

BSR: Have you always wanted to be a conductor?

MB: No, but once I started doing it regularly at age 22 I realized immediately it was a perfect fit for me. I'm good at articulating ideas and I've always been directive (not too useful elsewhere in life!) and I have strong musical ideas. They may not always be right, but they're always there!

BSR: Was it challenging to enter the world of conducting in the 70's as a female conductor?

MB: Hmm... Yes and no. Being in a job presented no problems; it was getting the job that was tough. Being young and female was a double liability; often singers are subconsciously looking for a 'father figure,' so you don't fit on 2 counts. Often in a rehearsal to audition for a position, someone (always bass or tenor) would be particularly prickly about suggestions. Then I'd think, well, there goes that job! And it usually was the case. That's what was so great about the Graduate Chorale and Musica Sacra; all those Cambridge intellectuals were more liberally minded and they were all pretty young themselves.

BSR: I loved reading that you have your singers in mixed format! Has Musica Sacra always done this?

MB: We have sung mixed in 90 percent of the concerts I have conducted over the past 23 years. It not only helps blend and tuning but it also makes singers more personally accountable. It also aids them in realizing their role as part of a fabric rather than "alto, accompanied by those other parts."

BSR: You are a high-level volunteer chorus, right?

MB: Yes.

BSR: What are your auditions like? What do you look/listen for in singers?

MB: [We have a] 2-part audition process. The first is with me. I hear a singer's range, which also allows me to hear their vocal quality to see if it is appropriate for our group, and test their sight reading. I pick a piece that's covertly tricky with rhythm and enharmonic notes and tell them I want to see how they cope. That's what good sight singing is; hearing your mistakes earlier so you can jump back on track before you get derailed. If they pass this, they come back for an evening's rehearsal during which we work on the current program and announce one piece as the audition piece. We work on that piece and at the end of the evening they represent their part in a quartet where the other members are the section leaders of the group. We see what the auditionee picked up in terms of phrasing, breath marks, and, of course, notes, rhythms and diction. Also, during the course of the rehearsal the section leader and I get to hear the singer in the section to see how they're blending, how quickly they pick up what's going on, etc. If the audition is poor, but the section leader says they didn't miss a note in rehearsal, we take that into account. We try to give singers every opportunity to demonstrate their capabilities. Often I will take someone on their potential. Some singers evolve just the way you hope they will and others don't change a whit from the day they first walked in the door. We instituted reauditions after many years of soul searching because we felt that it made it easier to take a chance on singers and give them an opportunity to demonstrate their ability to grow and evolve without committing us to "until death do us part" if it didn't work out.

We're also looking to build on our sound. Singers think you're just trying to make them feel better when you say, "You have a lovely voice, but it won't work in our section just now," but it's actually true. And no one likes to have to constantly sing in a way that's not natural just to fit into a group they want to sing in.

BSR: I'm so glad that you continue the Belmont Open Sings throughout the year. You are one of the only groups that does this, I believe? Did you initiate this program?

MB: We are the only group that does it and the only group that conducts all readings with a full orchestra and soloists. The Belmont Open Sings was founded by Barbara Connolly Lewis, who had participated in a similar program in Princeton, NJ. She led them for 25 years or so. I've been the director for about 7. I wish more choral singers in our area would realize what a fantastic resource it is. You have to get into Cecelia to work with Don Teeters; you have to go to Harvard to work with Jim Marvin or Murray Somerville. Or you can come sing a work with them in Belmont Open Sings and see what their style is. I try to invite two to three guest conductors a year for this reason.

BSR: A fabulous opportunity for singers, indeed. How do you find soloists for BOS as well as MS?

MB: I take notes when I attend concerts and also get references from singers whose production I like of other singers whom they feel sing similarly. I've used Donna Roll at Longy to refer students from there for Belmont Open Sings.

BSR: May singers send materials to you, or do you have auditions, or do you use only managed singers?

MB: I don't as yet use managed singers and I'm happy to have soloists send me materials. I DO NOT need a headshot (save those expensive copies!). I DO NEED a tape of the singer singing: preferably snatches of arias from various eras, although that's not absolutely necessary. It doesn't have to be from a concert; it doesn't even have to have an accompaniment. It does give me a sense of their voice whereby I can decide in what music I want to use them. I also love when singers have sound clips on their website and am glad that BSR has it on the list to do the same; Ray Bauwens' website had samples of his singing and it was just FABULOUS to help me shop for what I needed!

BSR: In these days of major cuts in arts funding, how do you keep Musica Sacra alive?

MB: Good question! How indeed? Our repertoire has long been dictated by budget constraints; obviously I'd program a lot more works with instruments if money were no object. We are extremely fortunate to have had some generous private funding in the past 5 years that has allowed us to develop our publicity and program one large orchestral work every year or every other year. In addition, we have been entirely self-run until 2 weeks ago, when we hired someone part-time to take over some of the stuff that's dropped between the cracks because we've grown so much in the past years. All of our grant writing, art work, program design, and CD production is done by members of the group who have this expertise and donate it pro bono.

BSR: What are the keys to gathering and maintaining audiences and sponsorship?

MB: Gee, you tell me!! Some that we use are attracting audiences through special group rates, targeting of special interests for particular programs, and outreach. [In 2002] we initiated a special 8 for $8 package to enable groups of people, often younger, to attend our concerts for less money. When we give German concerts, we're likely to target institutions like the Goethe Institute. We have given three concerts as benefits for organizations served by and for the homeless: Spare Change, Solutions at Work, and Bread and Jams. All the money raised goes to those institutions, but maybe some one on their mailing list comes to hear us for the first time and comes back next season to our regular series. As far as sponsorship, you will notice a lot of similarities in names on the donor list with those in the membership. We are largely supported by friends and family.

BSR: Future plans for Musica Sacra and for you?

MB: We just found out that Dan Pinkham is writing us a setting of the "Magnificat" to premiere [in 2004]. We are incredibly honored that he has chosen to write for us. I'm also hoping to do a major orchestral work. I'd like to do some Handel. We may also do another benefit concert in the spring.

For me, personally, I may be looking to get back into church music now that my kids are older. I'm also contemplating doing more orchestral work, if that were a possibility. I'd also like to work with a larger chorus that would give me access to some of the repertory for which Musica Sacra is unsuited. In four years (crossing fingers here) my kids will be in college and I'll have more time to devote to my music.

BSR: How has the music scene in New England changed over the years?

MB: It's gotten much more crowded. Many more groups are having to compete for singers, audiences and support. Also the genesis of what I call "niche choral groups" such as the Gay Men's Chorus. One of the main values of choruses is that they bring disparate people together to work on a common project of making music. I think that's incredibly important. You get to know some one in a positive light whom you might dismiss if you met at a social event. Maybe you don't share political views, but by the time you find that out, you're already committed to liking to work with that person. There's also an incredible bonding with people when you make music together. The community building is much greater than it would be if you just met for dinner once a week.

I saw it in Harvard University Choir and my singers have created it in Musica Sacra: a group of singers who enjoy each other's company and respect each other will make fabulous music and have a great time doing it. It's one of those upward spirals. The people who stay in our group realize that we work hard, but that we also care about and for each other. Both are equally important. Every year we try to have an all chorus party and every one has a fabulous time!

Copyright © 2003 Boston Singers Resource. Reprinted with permission.