In 25 years, the New Choral Society has become a community staple and one of the premier choral ensembles in Westchester County. Comprised of a robust choir and professional orchestra, its reputation has drawn top-tier musicians and singers in the classical voice vein, including renowned sopranos Stephanie Blythe and Christine Goerke.
On Sunday, May 5, the group will round out its 25th season with a finale concert featuring opera and oratorio luminaries: soprano Amy Shoremount-Obra, mezzo-soprano Megan Grey, tenor David Portillo and baritone Adrian Timpau.
The choir will perform two pieces by Ludwig van Beethoven, his sweeping “Ninth Symphony, Finale” (“Ode to Joy”) and more traditional “Mass in C.” The concert will be held at the choir’s home base, Hitchcock Presbyterian Church, 6 Greenacres Ave.
Reflecting on its humble beginnings, artistic director and conductor Dr. John T. King said he’s amazed by the project’s growth and popularity. A team effort with executive director Elizabeth Broyd — who sings soprano — the New Choral Society started with 23 singers. Today, its numbers have doubled, with ample basses, tenors and sopranos joining together from all walks of life (by day, doctors, mail carriers and stay-at-home parents). The award-winning chorus presents three concerts each season, including its annually sold-out holiday program of “Handel’s Messiah,” which the group once performed at Carnegie Hall.
The choir practices every week — September through May, rain or shine — once a week at Hitchcock Church, where King has been the minister of music for 30 years. He is also a celebrated organist, with scores of professional credits as a conductor and a musician.
“John knows how singers want to work,” Portillo, 38, told The Inquirer. “They want to be able to dip their toes in a place like the New Choral Society … a comfortable environment, and still feel like they’re getting to do it the right way, with an orchestra and a really great choir.”
The season closer marks Portillo’s third performance with the New Choral Society. The powerhouse tenor made his New York debut at The Juilliard School in “Armide,” and is now a main stage regular at the Metropolitan Opera. Opera News said he achieved “high notes with ease, singing with a luxuriant warm glow that seduced the ear as he bounded about the stage with abandon.” A San Antonio, Texas, native, his studies include the Ryan Opera Center in Chicago, the Merola Opera Program at San Francisco Opera and Wolf Trap Opera in Vienna, Virginia. Next month, he will tackle the role debut of Chevalier de la Force in the Metropolitan Opera’s “Dialogues des Carmélites.”
Portillo called his experiences on stage euphoric. “It’s a little bit divine, a little bit blissful,” he said, “but it’s also [about] that focused energy.”
He is particularly excited to belt Beethoven’s iconic repertoire in an intimate setting.
“Mass in C” is perhaps “one of the most beautiful masses ever composed,” Portillo said, a piece performed more often in concerts than in liturgical settings. “Hearing [Beethoven’s 9th] in a church experience is going to be really, really overwhelming, just because it’s such a big piece,” he added. “That church will be rockin’.”
Bass Steven Schnur, one of eight remaining original choir members, said working alongside such vocal giants is “the great musical experience of my life.”
“It’s thrilling,” the 67-year-old said. “It’s stunning to see their breath control, their nuanced performance, the emotion they’re capable of putting into their performance. … These performers bring you to tears.”
Schnur, a longtime Scarsdale resident, wandered into the choir’s first rehearsal at his wife’s suggestion. He began singing “serendipitously” after college, while his wife, Nancie Schnur, sang professionally. With three children under 3 years old, Nancie Schnur couldn’t commit to the choir’s weekly rehearsals, but she encouraged her husband to give it a go.
“I never looked back,” Steven Schnur said, citing King’s warmth and focus as artistic director. “In his gentle, humorous way, he teaches us so much about musicianship, about what it is we’re singing and how to sing it well,” Schnur said. “There’s so much laughter and joy.”
Shoremount-Obra is another return guest of the New Choral Society; the finale concert will be her fourth visit since 2013. It will be her first time singing Beethoven’s “Mass in C,” but she has lent her striking soprano to his 9th Symphony with the Canadian Chamber Orchestra of New York. Of that performance, NYArts.net raved, “Shoremount-Obra’s rich, buttery soprano soared in the quartets without her screeching or even seeming to make an effort to cut through Beethoven’s thick textures. She carried her melodic lines with a fine sense of their arching reach.”
The 40-year-old songbird has mastered the semantics of nine languages, singing in English, German, Italian, French, Spanish, Latin, Czech, Russian and Hebrew. (Her favorites are Czech, Russian and German.) She made her highly anticipated Metropolitan Opera debut in October 2014 as First Lady in Mozart’s “Die Zauberflöte” and is the top prizewinner of the 2018 Gerda Lissner Foundation International Vocal Competition Wagner Division.
In considering her bend toward classical music, Shoremount-Obra offered several explanations. Firstly, her voice fits that genre best; it’s not a sound you’d hear on the Top 40 pop charts. Classical music is also lush and rich, both melodically and emotionally. “A lot of people might initially be afraid of it,” Shoremount-Obra said. “Classical music does require you to think and have an imagination.”
But ultimately, she argued, the music transcends time and language. “To be human 2,000 years ago is the same as to be human now.”
Considering the last 25 years, King, 57, said he’s proud of the choir’s impact on the community. “You walk out there on that stage and everyone is just pulled together,” he said. “I just look forward to every rehearsal, every performance, being able to share the gift of all of this with people.”
Tickets are $20 and $15 for seniors/students. Preferred seating tickets are $25. To purchase, visit newchoralsociety.org or call 725-1678.