By William O. Baker
On a December Friday evening in Basehor, Kansas, as the sounds of organ, bells, choir, and audience rose in the ancient carol, O Come All Ye Faithful, there was another sound, an outpouring of sobs from the gathered, but masked and distanced assembly.
The year was 2020. The occasion was the annual candlelight and carols concert of The William Baker Festival Singers. To accommodate strict COVID safety protocols, performing singers were masked and distanced six feet apart. The processional carol did not come through the audience, rather singers entered from the sides. Instrumentalists performed behind a clear plexiglass screen. The audience was limited to 25% capacity of the church nave, also masked and distanced between family units.
Still, on the week before Christmas in a year of terrible fear and loss, the story of hope and joy was told in the singing of carols punctuated by narrations and interspersed by timeless choral classics, just as it has been done since the first Festival Singers candlelight concert in Atlanta in 1985.
The year that has just passed has been the most devastating in my career of over four decades. Most choral groups have been forced to remain silent, either by government dictates or by the unavailability of rehearsal and concert venues. I’ve shared many conversations with colleagues who would have continued their work, but the decision was taken out of their hands. There are many others, considering the age of members and sensitive to the concerns of their particular community, who made the difficult decision to suspend activities.
The Choral Foundation has sponsored The New South Festival Singers in Atlanta since 1985, and The William Baker Festival Singers in Kansas City since 1998. When shutdowns were announced in March 2020, our organization suspended rehearsals and canceled remaining March-May concerts. It was heartbreaking.
In early June, with the full support of our board of trustees and in consultation with our board of advisors, the Choral Foundation staff held a retreat to consider the direction we would take. As a part of the retreat we involved health professionals that participate in our ensembles.
The result of our conversation was a commitment to resume rehearsals and in-person performances as quickly and as safely as possible. Considering the emotional and spiritual devastation of shutdowns, isolation, and broken relationships, we affirmed that the work of artists and musicians, particularly choral musicians was as essential to the pandemic of soul and spirit as the work of responders and researchers is essential to the pandemic of the virus.
As much as we admire and champion the creative work of colleagues who have turned to technology, we made the decision to invest our funds and energies to find ways to continue live music making before in-person audiences. Our belief then, as now, is that COVID-19 is a serious crisis, but a temporary crisis.
We began holding “window concerts” in June. Five singers were positioned in the five upstairs windows of our offices in Roeland Park, Kansas. The singers were separated by 9 feet and three tall filing cabinets. The audience gathered in lawn chairs in the parking lot below throughout the summer to hear the weekly Sunday evening concerts. As the word spread in the community, more and more listeners gathered each week. The desire for live music was so strong that several dozen listeners sat in the pouring rain to hear one of the window concerts. “The Festival Singers will not be silenced!” became a rallying cry for the window concerts that is shouted even today at the end of every rehearsal.
Regular weekly rehearsals began in the fall in both Atlanta and Kansas City by our auditioned Festival Singers ensembles. Masks were worn by all singers, and 6+ foot spacing was strictly observed. Industrial fans ventilated rehearsal spaces, and we were careful not to remain in any one space longer than 45 minutes. Some rehearsals were held outside as weather permitted.
Public performances began in November as the Festival Singers in Kansas City performed works from Hildegard von Bingen to Brahms to new compositions by our resident composers. In the course of the 2020-21 season, the Choral Foundation will have performed a dozen public concerts in our constituent cities, premiered five new works, produced and released two new CD recordings, and brought hope to hundreds of listeners.
In March, The William Baker Festival Singers & Chamber Orchestra performed a masterworks concert featuring John Rutter’s Requiem, a work that spoke comfort to many who had experienced fear and loss due to the pandemic. https://youtu.be/XvI9Xc71t_A
In late April, The New South Festival Singers & Chamber Orchestra performed cantatas of Dietrich Buxtehude and J. S. Bach.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a horrific experience for all of us in the field of choral music. It is my prayer that none of us will ever again experience an event like this. I also pray that the world of choral music will boldly and courageously return to full activities for the summer of 2021 and for the 2021-22 season. Most of all, I pray that choral music will never be taken for granted and will never be silenced again.
The Choral Foundation has two remaining concert performances to culminate this unusual season. If you are close to Kansas City or Atlanta, we humbly invite you to join us and celebrate with us:
Sunday, May 2, 3:00 CDT
The William Baker Festival Singers
Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Kansas City, MO
Premiers of new works by Sean Sweeden, Ed Frazier Davis, Samuel Wu and Daniel Sabgzhabaei
Classical Works by Hildegard von Bingen, Johannes Brahms and William Byrd
Early American Hymns & Spirituals, and Gospel Selections
Sunday, May 23, 3:00 EDT
The New South Festival Singers
St. John United Methodist Church, Atlanta, GA
Classical Works of Claudio Monteverdi, F. Melius Christiansen, Kenneth Jennings
Conductor, author, and entrepreneur, William O. Baker is an Atlanta native who has called Kansas City home for over 20 years. Though a church musician for over four decades, Dr. Baker is best known as the founder and director of the semi-professional William Baker Festival Singers. He is also the head of the Choral Foundation (www.ChoralFoundation.org), which has created over a dozen choral ensembles in three states in addition to a broad range of continuing education programs.