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The News-Times: Neighbors A notable difference
A notable difference
Musical ability, tone and pace distinguish chorale
By Karen Roberts


The Connecticut Master Chorale with music director and conductor Tina Johns Heidrich and accompanist Joseph Jacovino Jr. in front row center.

The chorale recently won first place in the adult choir category at the June 8 “Gospelfest.” ABC taped the event and will be broadcast it and a recent chorale rehearsal Saturday night. To win such a competition requires hard work and high standards. Director Tina Johns Heidrich, above, says her acceptance rate in the first year was “about 44 percent of the number of people I auditioned.”

DANBURY — "It’s all about the music.”

That’s how music director and conductor Tina Johns Heidrich sums up the character and purpose of her 50-some voice chorus, the Connecticut Master Chorale.

Founded by Heidrich in 1999, the chorale has always performed to full houses. In this their third year, members will perform three major concerts and appear at invitationals.

"We’ve already been invited next year, although the details are not finalized yet, to perform in Naugatuck, Ridgefield and Bloomfield,” Heidrich says.

Before the Connecticut Master Chorale, Heidrich, 47, conducted the Connecticut Choral Society and founded and directed its Chamber Singers. She is a vocal and instrumental composer and arranger, and, since 1990, has been director of music and organist at the First Congregational Church of Bethel.

She bubbles with enthusiasm as she talks about her latest venture.

"Basically what I wanted to do was to form a group that was extremely high caliber, professional quality. The main focus of the group was to perform more often, which would require that our concerts be prepared with minimal rehearsal time.

"My main focus when I started the group was to put on three major concerts a year — one in November, one in March, one in May,” Heidrich says. "As it turned out, last year we were performing once a month, because we started getting invitations from various places around the state.”

Accompanist Joseph Jacovino Jr. of Middlebury welcomes the additional venues. The chorus performs its three main annual concerts accompanied by a group of area musicians that Heidrich calls the Connecticut Master Chorale Orchestra. But for the invitationals, only the piano accompanies. "For me that’s very enjoyable,” Jacovino says, "because I get to play everything. I don’t have to share it with an orchestra.”

Despite a busy schedule, Heidrich felt there was room for a whim, so sent an audition tape to compete in "Gospelfest” on May 27 at the Palace Theater in Stamford. A few weeks later, she received notice that the Connecticut Master Chorale was one of the 12 finalists out of 2,179 competitors.

"It was a shot in the dark,” she says about entering. "We had no aspirations of winning. We don’t specialize in gospel. It’s not our normal genre.”

Nevertheless, the group won first place in the adult choir category with its rendition of "The Word Was God,” an eight-part a-cappella fugue by Rosephanye Powell and based on the Gospel according to St. John.

"When we were rehearsing it, the group couldn’t grasp what the effect of the piece was,” says Heidrich. "I kept saying during rehearsal, ‘Man, this is wild!’ — especially when the basses started — I kept saying, ‘This is wild, this is wild!’Ÿ”

Those attending the Gospelfest thought so, too.

"The audience was going crazy,” Heidrich says. "Then when we stopped at the end with this big pause, which I took even longer, and then ended with ‘God,’ (the audience) absolutely exploded.”

A couple of days after the competition, Jeelu Ballimoria, a producer at ABC, called Heidrich to say they’d like to tape the chorale rehearsing for some behind-the-scene action to the televised competition.

Heidrich scrambled to get the group together before members started going off on vacation, and on June 8, an ABC crew showed up at the South Britain Congregational Church in Southbury, where the group rehearses, for the taping. Excerpts will be shown when the "Gospelfest” program airs on Saturday night.

Most of chorale members are from the greater Danbury area between Brookfield, where Heidrich lives with her husband, Don, and Southbury, where the group holds its weekly rehearsals.

Although they have performed all over the state, their main concerts are held at three area churches: St. Peter Church in Danbury, St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church in Newtown, and St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Bethel.

"What is different (about the chorale),” says Jacovino, "is that it is totally auditioned. And not only are the singers very good singers, but they’re excellent musicians and very fine readers. They learn very quick, which is why the group can learn a concert every eight weeks. The pace is very quick and the rehearsal is very intense. There’s a lot that’s accomplished at each rehearsal.”

But maintaining a quick, professional pace was not Heidrich’ only objective. "I wasn’t just looking for bodies,” she says. "I’m maintaining a sound.”

Patti Alworth, a homemaker from Bethel, attributes the clarity of the sound to singing without vibrato.

"You’re not getting those big, operatic voices standing out,” she says. "(Heidrich) wants a unity of tone where it sounds like one voice, not a lot of individual voices singing. When you cut out the vibrato, you’re not going to be able to pinpoint certain voices. It’s just a clarity of tone.”

Heidrich preserves the professional quality of the group by requiring auditions and personally selecting the members.

"I love this group.” Heidrich says. "Everyone was hand-picked by me. Either they were invited or they auditioned. I don’t have children, so to me, this group is my baby.”

Alworth remembers her audition. "It was grueling. It lasted about half an hour, and took me from the bottom of my range to the highest end of my range. I think I sang, "My Country ’Tis of Thee” about 25 times, in every imaginable key. Then she had me sight sing. It was a little nerve-racking but fun at the same time.”

Range, intonation, sight reading ability and overall tone quality are the vocal elements that Heidrich listens for.

"When I started the group,” she says, "my acceptance rate for the first year ran about 44 percent of the number of people I auditioned. My acceptance rate for the second year ran about 22 percent.”

Although Heidrich aims to keep the group small, she admits that she "won’t pass up somebody if they are really good.” Currently, she’s looking for a few good basses.

"She wants to keep the blend and balance exactly the way she thinks it should be,” says Nancy Lavers, a licensed massage therapist from Danbury. "She hand-picks each voice in every part because of how it fits in with the whole group. I know I’ve never sung in such a group where that much care was taken to select voices.”

"Tina expects as close to perfection as we can give her,” says May Steinberg of New Fairfield and a music teacher at the Hackley School in Tarrytown, N.Y. "She doesn’t settle for anything less than what she wants, which is a wonderful challenge for me personally as a singer.

The music the chorale performs has included Dave Brubeck’s "To Hope!” and Anton Bruckner’s "Te Deum,” contemporary composers such as Andrew Lloyd Webber, Randol Bass, and Mark Hayes, and an all-Puccini concert on Mother’s Day last year. The members and their reasons for joining are just as diverse.

"It’s the desert of my everyday meal,” says Lavers, "I love it. It just energizes me. I can have a very long day working, be tired and worn out, and go to rehearsal and come out of rehearsal so alive and so exhilarated. Have you heard of the runner’s high? Well, I get a singer’s high.

David Cook, a retired librarian from Bethel, find participation in this group a creative outlet. "I am not a creative person, and this is my big opportunity to do something ‘creative.’ I’m an organized, careful plotter, but I’m just not creative. Doing something like this is half the excitement. It’s really not important whether we have a concert or not. It’s the challenge of putting the pieces together and knowing we’re doing a good job. Actually, if we never had a concert, that really wouldn’t matter to me.”

"Because I’m a high school teacher,” Jacovino says, "most of what I do is teaching. I also direct a jazz band at the community college in Waterbury, and I direct the choir at St. Rose church. So the accompanying part gives me a chance to what I really love, and that’s to play the piano." going to rehearsal for me is like therapy.

For the Rev. Frederick L. Curtis, of Church of the Epiphany in Southbury, the music is "a large part of what I need to do to stay whole.”

No one in the group can talk about the chorale without also talking about Heidrich and her passion for music and dedication to excellence.

"She is extremely knowledgeable,” says Ginnie Carey, a retired librarian who lives in Newtown. "More knowledgeable than many other directors about the technique of how to sing. If she hears something she doesn’t like, she knows how to tell you to achieve what she wants.”

Lavers says, "I have sung in groups that have been fun. I have sung in groups that have been challenging, and I have sung in groups that have eight parts to the voices rather than just four, but Tina’s group is the only one where all those elements come together, and that is a real treasure.”

The Connecticut Master Chorale will appear on ABC, Channel 7, on Saturday at 7 p.m. For additional information about tickets, concerts and purchasing CDs, or to hear concert sound clips, access the Web site at Telephone: (203) 743-0473.

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