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Conley focuses West Village Chorale on music and community
by Dan McCrary for Vocal Area Network
Posted May 4, 2004

Michael ConleyFor more than thirty years the West Village Chorale has been a solid member of its community, providing music and other services to its neighbors. It still does. But the music is getting better.

This is largely because of Michael Conley, who is nearing the end of his fourth season as the chorale's conductor and artistic director. Conley, who holds a master's degree in conducting from Westminster Choir College in Princeton, NJ, has a sharp ear for programming and puts together concerts of distinctive character. He's broadening the chorale's franchise to include instrumental chamber concerts. Yet he wants to maintain the feeling of community identity and involvement of chorale members that has characterized this organization since its inception.

Indeed, the chorale was founded as a community chorus in 1971 by Gwen Gould, who was then on the staff of the Church of St. Luke in the Fields, on Hudson Street, where the chorale still performs. St. Luke's was then a part of Trinity Parish, which helped to underwrite its activities. But St. Luke's became a parish on its own and the West Village Chorale had to make its way independently. One way it did this was by emphasizing services for its West Village community. It has sponsored an annual caroling walk in the Christmas season and each summer there is a series of open readings of popular choral works under the direction of New York's best choral conductors. There's also an annual open reading of Messiah at Christmas.

These activities continue. But over the years there was often a question about which was the tail and which the dog: Was the chorale's primary function to make music or provide community services? Conley's answer is both. The chorale's ties to the West Village and to St. Luke's contribute to members' sense of commitment, Conley believes, and this adds a dimension that singers don't often have elsewhere. "One of the Chorale's appeals is its community focus," Conley says. Its continuing tie to the historic St. Luke's underlines this.

But Conley is making a strong move to improve the Chorale's musical stance by introducing music other than the repertoire of 18th and 19th century works that are bread and butter for many choruses. A May, 2004 concert will be devoted to French music, including challenging -- for non-French speakers -- works of Poulenc, Ravel and Lili Boulanger. "It's not easy to do such pieces with a large choir," Conley says. And while he acknowledges that singers grumble about the difficulty of learning challenging music in an unfamiliar language, they generally are enthusiastic at the end of the learning process. A 2003 performance of an infrequently-performed mass by the 19th century American composer John Knowles Paine represented another direction in creative programming.

Another Conley innovation is a series of instrumental chamber concerts that compare the non-choral music of the composers that are featured in the chorale's main concerts. "This is a way of diversifying what we offer as well a deepening an understanding of these composers for our audiences," Conley says. It also provides an opportunity for instrumentalists associated with the chorale, notably Conley and Elena Belli, the chorale's talented pianist, to perform.

For next season, Conley is planning a concert of music written for one instrument and choir -- four pieces by Cecil Effinger for oboe and chorus, a work by Stephen Paulus for flute and choir, and a piece by Ezekel Braun for oboe and choir along with John Rutter's Requiem in the composer's arrangement for solo instruments and choir. Also in the next season will be two works for wind ensemble and choir: masses by Igor Stravinsky and Anton Bruckner. "My number one goal has been to find interesting programs that a smaller chorus can do successfully," Conley says. He says he would like to see the Chorale at about 40 members from its present 30.

An accomplished singer, Conley is also a founding member of Manhattan Voices, a 12-member collaborative professional choir that gave its second concert in April.

Dan McCrary, a retired senior editor of Business Week magazine, has sung with the West Village Chorale on and off since he stopped smoking in 1975.

Content Contact: Dan McCrary.
Revision Date: May 4, 2004.
Technical Contact: Steve Friedman.

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