At 7:30 sharp on a recent Monday evening, Michael Slon, conductor of The Oratorio Society of Virginia, took his place before the chorus.
“Deep breath in, blow it out,” Slon said, and the Municipal Arts Center on Fifth Street filled with the sound of 83 sopranos, altos, tenors, baritones, and basses, warming up for their weekly two-hour rehearsal.
“Oh, oh, ah, ah, oh. Zee, zay, za, zo, zoo. Me, may, mah, mo, moo,” they sang.
“Shoulders back and forward,” Slon instructed them. “Tilt your head to the side, and the other side, and massage your jaw. Deep breath. Blow it out.”
“We had a good rehearsal last week,” Slon told them, “but we still have more to do if we’re going to be ready” for two shows at The Paramount Theater on Saturday, December 21.
In addition to the Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols, tonight they will run through “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” “Silver Bells,” “Betelehemu” (a Nigerian carol), and a complex, jazzy arrangement of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”
The next day, Slon, director of choral programs and a professor at the University of Virginia’s McIntire School of Music, met me for coffee on the Downtown Mall. He grew up singing and playing the piano in Buffalo, New York, and busted out laughing when I (a Minnesota native) told him that every public school within a 50-mile radius had cancelled classes that day in anticipation of dangerous winter weather that never materialized.
We waxed nostalgic for tough Northerners and the snowy climes of our youths, and then our conversation turned to the Oratorio Society, which Slon has conducted since 2011.
I asked what prompted him to add the chorus to his already overflowing sideboard of musical obligations that includes conducting the University Singers, Chamber Singers, the Charlottesville & University Symphony Orchestra, and working on a Leonard Bernstein “project” that he hopes will eventually become his second book. (Slon’s first book, Songs from the Hill, is a history of the glee club at Cornell University, his alma mater.) He’s also in the thick of wedding planning, having gotten engaged not long ago to a lawyer.
“I did reflect on all my commitments, and I felt I had the ability to make a difference for this group, and that conducting it would also be fulfilling for me because it was an opportunity to connect with this community in a new way, a way that I don’t via my position at the University,” Slon said. “I also saw it as a chance to try to contribute something more to our musical life in Charlottesville.”
In addition, he enjoys leading a group that “offers talented local singers a chance to rehearse and perform at a high musical level and to engage with some of the finest works in the choral repertoire. It is our goal, as Bernstein’s Candide says, to ‘make our garden grow.’”
And grow it has. According to Jane Colony Mills, the Oratorio Society’s executive director, more than 1,500 singers have performed with the group during its 45-year history. “When the Society was formed in the 1960s, there was no other organization like it in the area, no other opportunity to perform choral masterworks,” she said.
“Good programming is a challenge for any conductor,” Slon said. “We tend to mull it over at great length. With the season, the challenge is to find the balance among fulfilling our mission of singing what we might call choral masterworks, balancing the budget, and programming works that will engage the singers and audiences in new ways.”
At Monday night’s rehearsal, Peg O’Bryant, librarian for the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society and the Oratorio Society’s longest-singing member, stopped by a table in the back of the Municipal Arts Center to pick up copies of “O Come, O Come” and “Silver Bells.” O’Bryant joined the Society in the fall of 1975 when she and her husband moved to Charlottesville, and she’s stuck with it for nearly 40 years for a simple reason: “We do gratifying and edifying music,” she said.
During a brief break later in the evening, Lloyd Snook, an attorney who has sung with the Oratorio Society for 13 years, said “singing makes me feel good, whether I’m singing in the shower or in front of a campfire or here on Monday nights. It’s a release that takes me away from the law and the heavy things that I spend 40-plus hours a week dealing with.”
Patsy Dass, a clinical psychologist, said she joined the ensemble seven-and-a-half years ago because “I just wanted to sing. Music is one of the most uplifting things, whether you’re singing or listening to it.”
“It’s what makes us human,” added Elaine Alpern, a nurse practitioner and mother of four children, ages 5 to 11. And singing “is not related to my job or my kids. I sometimes see it as something else I have to do, but once I’m here, I’m so glad I’m here. It’s kind of like exercise.”
Oratorio Society auditions are held three times a year, in late August, January, and mid-spring, and Slon said the door is always “wide open” for anyone interested in joining.
On Saturday, the chorus will be joined by a pair of youth choirs: the Burley Bearettes, directed by Craig Jennings, during the 2:30pm performance, and the Albemarle High School Patriot Singers, conducted by Jennifer Morris, at 7:30pm. Other collaborations this season include a March 1 sing-in to benefit PACEM, “where we invite all interested singers to join us in singing the Vivaldi Gloria and Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus at First Presbyterian Church,” said Jane Colony Mills. “In May, we’re collaborating with Ash Lawn Opera to present two semi-staged concert performances of Bernstein’s Candide at the Paramount.”
Slon likes to quote Bernstein, a composer and conductor he deeply admires because “he was a force of nature with a contagious love of music, the most accomplished of American conductors, and an inspiration in balancing serious thought with a spirit of fun,” he said.
“Bernstein believed music is for everyone,” Slon added. “And we promise there’s something for everyone on our programs. We also hope that our Christmas show will inspire joy in our listeners, a joy that they can then go out and share with others this holiday season.”