The artistic director of the Bach Festival Society of Winter Park has turned an all-volunteer choir into a work of fine art. Just how does he do it?
John Sinclair (Photo by Phelan M. Ebenhack)
This article originally appeared in Orlando Signature magazine’s October 2016 edition. It is republished here with permission.
Imagine if you can, the sound of 160 voices singing in the full range human beings can produce, coordinated with one another to perform some of the most intricate music ever composed.
As should be expected from a professional choir, each note is in perfect pitch, each voice synchronized with those surrounding it. Coming from singers arranged on banked seats filling the front of the magnificent 84-year old Knowles Memorial Chapel on the Rollins College campus, the unamplified voices have a physical presence unlike anything most of us have ever heard in this digital age of Auto-Tune and earbuds. Except the Bach Festival Society Choir is not, in fact, professional.
The choir, first organized in 1935, is made up of volunteer artists from eight countries and all manner of occupations. Rollins students and professional retirees, young graphic designers and nurses with grandchildren, math professors and astronomy lecturers all fill the seats, waiting for the first wave of the baton wielded by Dr. John Sinclair, artistic director and conductor of both the Bach Festival Society of Winter Park’s choir and its accompanying orchestra.
“All of my physicians are tenors and sopranos,” Sinclair says, “and most of my lawyers are basses and altos. I don’t know what it says about the choir ...”
Sinclair has a two-sided job, working with a professional orchestra on one hand and an—pardon the expression—amateur choir on the other.
“A lot of teaching takes place in the rehearsal,” Sinclair says, and that’s before the choir ever gets to rehearse with the orchestra. Once they’re together, every- one is treated alike, and the expectation is the same. These are dedicated musicians who come together weekly—and more—who give their time to this community. Not only do we have a role in this community — we are the community.”
The orchestra, some 40 strong, comes from a pool of players from local orchestras, and Rollins, the University of Central Florida and Stetson University faculty, and are considered the best players Central Florida has to offer.
“When you get right down to it,” Sinclair says, “everybody in town, the Orlando Philharmonic, the Brevard Symphony, us, we’re all pickup orchestras. Very few people are on salary. But we’ve worked with the same people for 20 years.”
An often smiling, gray-haired man who wears a tuxedo well, the soft-spoken educator started out as a jazz trumpeter in his hometown of Kansas City. The bookcases in his music-lined office are filled with CDs (“It’s mostly classical,” he says, “but there’s a small but serious jazz collection in there.”) and figurines of bewigged and bobbleheaded Bachs sit among books of academic analysis.
Hired in 1985 by the 10th President of Rollins College, Hugh McKean, president of the Charles Hosmer Morse Foundation that founded the Morse Museum, and John Teidke, who was the president of the Bach Festival for 52 years, Sinclair took over the Festival in 1990.
Rehearsals occur ever Monday during the season and daily before performances. In a practice room full of expectant faces who launch immediately into song with the wave of Sinclair’s hand, the sound is fine-tuned and reworked; almost each phrase, word and note is dissected. “Sopranos, it is ‘le’ not ‘lay’,” Sinclair notes. “Basses, rounder not so punchy—be like Dizzy Gillespie, puff your cheeks out a little bit.
“Sopranos, can you have a little more fun ... I want to hear the blues note.”
Athalia Cope is the longest current member of the choir, having joined 56 years ago while she was a freshman in the Rollins music department. “I’ve missed one year,” she says.
“Singing is unlike anything else you can do,” explains the 75-year-old Cope. “It’s a spiritual experience; I believe it brings me closer to God. When you’re surrounded by voices, hearing everyone performing on the stage, you see that everybody is important. We’re all a team.”
The choir began modestly as a celebration of Bach’s 250th birthday organized by Rollins College professor Christopher Honaas and members of the student choir. During World War II, servicemen from Orlando Army Air Base were recruited to fill the seats of drafted choir members. Sections of the Society have performed in England at Kings College Chapel, the Vatican, Smetana Hall in Prague and the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts.
“I want to be one of those conductors who knows how to stay out of the way,” Sinclair says. He waves his hand as if holding a baton. “This doesn’t make any noise,” he laughs. “As soon as you think you’re more important than the music, the great god of conducting will jump up and bite you in the butt.”
Chorus is a commitment of time. Monday night rehearsals run three hours or more; the festival itself consists of three weeks of nightly singing, and it’s not unusual for a chorister to travel two hours each way to attend.
How does a classical music organization remain relevant to modern audiences?
“That’s a great question,” Sinclair says. “I’m spending a lifetime figuring that out. This is my 27th year, and it’s exactly what I was trained to do.
“I’m still a practitioner, I’m still a learner, every year I do new works, but even if I return to old pieces, they’re never done the same, because I’ve learned something.”
The repertoire under Sinclair is quite eclectic, from Bach, Beethoven and Rossini to adventurous works by Venezuelan composer Antonio Estevez, Ukrainian composer Valeri Kikta and England’s Paul McCartney. For a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination in 2018, he selected civil rights works by African-American composers Nathaniel Dett and William Grant Still.
A highlight of this season is a performance of Richard Einhorn’s oratorio for The Passion of Joan of Arc, featuring a floating stage with a screen and the choir and orchestra 10 feet underneath the moving images. The festival is no stranger to movie music, but this will be the ensemble’s first time working alongside an actual film.
“What we sing is not easy stuff,” Cope says. “I’m sure what we do is like what professional athletes go through. I am a vocal athlete.”
Not bad for a pickup band.
October 22–23 Puccini’s Messa di Gloria, written when the 17-year-old composer had an infatuation with cowboys and the Old West; new piece by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Paul Moravec, based on the life of Charles Lindbergh; and Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No. 3, completed in 1889
November 18–19 The Voices of Light performance of The Passion of Joan of Arc
December 1 Christmas in the Park
December 10–11 A Classic Christmas
February 26, 2017 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, music by Bach and Mendelssohn
March 4 Dvorák’s and Pergolesi’s versions of Stabat Mater
March 5 Festival Favorites. The audience will vote throughout the festival for the music they want to hear again.
Visit bachfestivalflorida.org for tickets.
Bach Festival Society Choir auditions are held ever summer. For more information visit: bachfestivalflorida.org.