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11.10.14

The Choir Boys

With four ensembles between them, and nearly five decades of friendship, Peter Boak and Garrett Brown are the pied pipers of Island singing.

Choral music is a miracle of collaboration. After all, no chorale or oratorio can be performed by just one person. But successful collaboration requires not only the mutual respect of the artists, but also a personal connection that is strong and, at times, uncanny. That is how both Peter Boak and Garrett Brown describe their long collaboration as director and accompanist, respectively, of the Island Community Chorus, which is heading into its twentieth year of making music.

“It’s like we can read each other’s minds,” says Boak. “It’s odd, but it’s because I know him so well and what he can do. I know the strengths he’s got that I don’t have and that I depend on.”

Not that they are exactly alike: they’re more like the Penn & Teller of choral music. A charming host, Boak is happy exuding a public personality. A taciturn partner, Brown is happy letting Boak be Boak. “I’ve known Peter for forty-four years and that has a lot to do with it,” explains Brown.

It all began at the Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey, where they were both students in the 1970s, though not at the same time. Choir College? Boak thought he wanted to be a school teacher, but at age seventeen was already playing organ and directing three choirs at his New Jersey church. “And so when it became time to think about college,” he explained, “the minister of my church said, ‘Could you go someplace like the Choir College (just about an hour away) and keep the job here?’ And that’s when I put two and two together and figured out that what I could teach was music.”

Brown, meanwhile, started studying piano and organ at age five. By age ten he was playing in his church in upstate New York, ultimately enrolling at Westminster.

These days Brown says little during rehearsals, but explains that it’s “because I have to be constantly listening.” When Boak stops the chorus to make a correction, Brown invariably knows exactly where the conductor will go back to in the piece to make that correction. “When he starts again, I am always there,” said Brown.

“Garrett’s hearing is much keener than mine,” Boak agreed.

As if the community chorus wasn’t commitment enough, both men direct multiple other choirs on the Island. Boak, who retired from teaching music at the Tisbury School, directs the choirs at Edgartown’s Federated Church and the Hebrew Center. Brown, who has a day job as an administrator at the hospital, directs the choir at Trinity Church in Oak Bluffs. “I enjoy my work at the hospital,” said Brown, who never aspired to be a professional musician. “But when I am doing this, that’s me!”

Anyone can join the community chorus. There are no auditions and the singers, who self-identify as soprano, alto, tenor, or bass, are there simply because they want to sing. “You need a lot of patience, and you have to correct with kindness and diplomacy,” said Brown. “You have to realize that they don’t have to be there, so it’s your responsibility to make them want to be there.”

Apparently, the Community Chorus has come a long way since he took over as accompanist in 2000.

“No one was sight reading,” Brown remembered of his first years as its accompanist. “We were banging out every note of every part for them, which was tremendously time-consuming. Now there is sight reading. People are actually sight reading!”

“It was actually scary,” echoed Boak, who has directed the chorus since 1996. “We’d be two rehearsals before a concert and we weren’t even making music yet.”

Boak and Brown push their musicians hard and the crowds at their concerts attest to the quality of the outcome, but by “making music” Boak means more than simply knowing the parts. “I’ve been to a lot of concerts, choral concerts, where the notes were all perfect, but the concert was boring, because there was no music being made. The people were just technicians,” he said.

So the two men spend a lot of time teaching their singers the emotion behind each piece: the dynamics, the rhythms and tones that will make each piece come alive. The singers scribble the directives into their music and do their best to deliver, even if some of them end up miming certain unattainable notes.

 “It’s got to be fun,” Brown added. “It may not be fun while you are in the midst of learning the music, but when the concert is good and you are happy with yourself, it was all worth it, because it was all fun.”                                                                                                                             

The holiday concert takes place December 6 and 7 at the Whaling Church. The spring concert is April 5 and 6 at the high school Performing Arts Center.

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