If you go
WHAT: Charleston Men's Chorus Spring Concert: "A Fusion of Favorite Opera and Musicals"
WHEN: 4 p.m. March 9
WHERE: Sottile Theatre, 44 George St., downtown Charleston
MORE INFO: www.cmchorus.com; (843) 720-8505
Charleston sure does have a lot of singers. Some are professionals, others students and many are amateurs with a profound interest in serious repertoire and a commitment to presenting it from the stage.
The Charleston Symphony Chorus is one of the most well-known choirs in town, performing independently and with the orchestra. The Taylor Festival Choir presents finely rendered interpretations on a regular basis.
The CSO Spiritual Ensemble performs African-American spirituals and sacred music, and its sister organization, the CSO Gospel Choir presents popular favorites.
The College of Charleston and Charleston Southern University offer singers plenty of choral opportunities. And let's not forget the churches.
Among these ensembles is one that's a little unique, and not only because it's all-male and all-amateur. The Charleston Men's Chorus is also a little like a club.
Singing in French
At a recent rehearsal, about 50 men filed into the choir room at St. Philip's Church downtown, picking up music and a copy of the latest "Staff Notes" newsletter to peruse. Conductor Ricard Bordas and accompanist Pamela Nelson assumed their positions in front of the semicircle of singers, and the group began with warm-ups that loosened their larynxes and reminded them how best to form their vowels, then launched into the Soldier's Chorus from Gounod's opera "Faust," singing in French, a first for many of the men.
Nelson, who joined the chorus in 1994, is a pillar of the group, Bordas and Evans said.
"Pam is great," Bordas said. "She always reads my mind and she's always there."
Bordas, whose musical experience includes lots of professional conducting and singing and collaboration with important musicians, is now in his third year with the chorus.
He's introduced foreign languages: Besides French, the men have sung in Bordas' native Catalan, in German and in Latin. He has worked to rid the singers of that Southern spread, a tendency to produce wide and open vowel sounds rather than tall, focused tones. He has emphasized dynamics, phrasing and blend. And he has challenged the men with new repertoire in an effort to add variety to the programming and stimulate the group.
"He's made us want to be better, and he's made it fun," said Jack Evans, current president of the organization. "We can't improve without putting in the effort."
Some of the members sang in various ensembles in their younger days, others are new to choral singing. All enjoy the camaraderie, Evans said.
Bordas now requires prospective new members to audition. Little by little, he is raising the bar, improving the quality of the musical product, he said. A second, smaller choir, drawn from within the group, also provides some variety for audiences and opportunity for more experienced singers. And sometimes a soloist emerges to sing in front of the chorus, further showcasing the talent within.
On March 9, the Men's Chorus will present its Spring Concert at the Sottile Theatre, one of three annual performances. Opera choruses in French and German are on the program, along with some popular musical theater favorites. Bordas' wife, soprano Margaret Kelly Cook, will make a guest appearance.
Sharing the wealth
The group operates as a nonprofit with a $40,000 annual operating budget and raises money for college scholarships, Evans said. It grants four $2,500 scholarships a year, two to singers at the College of Charleston and two to students at Charleston Southern University.
Recently, the group launched a new scholarship effort in memory of John Kerr, a founding member and past president of the chorus who died in 2012. The new scholarship will be endowed and managed by the Coastal Community Foundation, according to treasurer Josh Stokes.
The goal is to raise $150,000 and distribute two scholarships of $3,000 each in addition to the awards funded by the regular operating budget, Stokes said. The scholarships would go each to a College of Charleston and Charleston Southern University voice or conducting student.
"The plan is, it will survive in perpetuity even if the Men's Chorus does not," Stokes said. Already, the organization has raised $62,000 of its goal.
Scholarship recipients are encouraged to join the Men's Chorus for a concert or two, schedule permitting, Evans said.
Bordas is an assistant professor of music at Charleston Southern University and choirmaster at First (Scots) Presbyterian Church in downtown Charleston. A respected countertenor, he was born in Barcelona and graduated from the Royal Academy of Music in London.
His extensive performing experience includes concerts with conductors Riccardo Muti, Rafael Fruebeck de Burgos, Rene Jacobs and Christopher Hogwood. He has graced the stages of La Scala in Milan, Netherlands Opera and Royal Albert Hall, among others, and appeared in festivals, with the Charleston Symphony Orchestra and in recitals here and abroad.
Bordas has worked extensively in Spain, England and the U.S., focusing largely on the Baroque repertoire and making a number of recordings.
"I have great memories of all the places I have been and all the concerts I have done in both singing and conducting," he wrote in an email.
Local musicians called Bordas a great addition to the city's musical landscape.
"It's great to have someone like him in Charleston," said Enrique Graf, a concert pianist and teacher based in the Lowcountry. His resume and musical knowledge are impressive, yet he is "so unassuming, a down-to-earth guy," Graf said. "There is nobody in town like him."
David Smythe, 60, is a baritone in the chorus and a commercial real estate broker. He joined the group when it was first formed in 1970 but dropped out when his wife became pregnant.
"It took 20 years to get back into it," he joked.
He's been an active member for more than a decade now. But he's always been a singer. As a child, he was part of the Society for the Preservation of Spirituals, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather.
In the Men's Chorus, members are being challenged in a good way, Smythe said.
"Our music is more intense," he said. "More is expected out of us. Instead of a glee club, we're now a chorus."
The chorus, which has more than 70 members these days, is selling out concerts at the Sottile Theatre. Besides its Spring Concert, it presents a Christmas concert and Memorial Day concert (the latter is part of the Piccolo Spoleto Festival). Those shows have built-in themes, and the men have fun with them, offering anything from classical sacred settings to doo-wop.
The Spring Concert provides an opportunity to spread their wings, Bordas said. Each year, they will pick a textual or stylistic theme - this time it's love and features opera choruses - and program around it.
It's probably the most difficult and interesting program they've ever presented, and indicative of the strides the group has been making lately.
"You don't go where you want to go in one great leap, it's in steps," Evans said.
The Charleston Men's Chorus is stepping forward into a new era.
Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902. Follow him at www.facebook/aparkerwriter.
The Charleston Menís Chorus prepares for its spring concert at the Sottile Theatre, which will feature opera choruses and musical theater numbers.×
Jack Evans is the president of the chorus, which performs three concerts a year.×
A chorus singer rehearses a piece from Gounodís ďFaust.Ē×
Conductor Ricard Bordas leads the Charleston Menís Chorus during rehearsal in the choir room of St. Philipís Church.×