The heavens may
be “telling the glory of God,” as Haydn declares in “The Creation,”
but an inspired delivery of that message depends upon voices on
earth. If James (“Jim”) Johns, Assistant Professor of Music and
Director of Choral Activities at Queens College has his way, that
message will be memorably delivered by the Queens College Choral
Society (QCCS) on Saturday night, May 10. For the youthful conductor,
who assumed his post just this academic year, bringing with him
not only his bride, Emily, a harpist and also a soprano in the
Choral Society, the experience will be a fabulous first. The 120
-member group will be augmented by voices from a smaller ensemble
at the college and by the choir at the United States Merchant
Marine Academy at Kings Point. Daunting, exhilarating and, to
judge from this energetic pair, eminently do-able.
The two musicians
sit chatting with a visitor, addressing envelopes, fielding questions
from students who keep dropping in, commiserating with a colleague
in minor moan mode who is leaning in the doorway. The phone is
ringing, the computer is blipping away, and Emily is playing lost
and found with a lunch (or dinner) snack. No problem, the dynamic
duo doesn’t miss a beat. Life is allegro and they love it.
The position of
Choral Director is a first for Queens College, with its well known
Aaron Copland School of Music. Before that, the college’s four
different vocal groups had been led by separate adjuncts—not the
best way to advance musicianship or music. üt was the faculty
itself that advocated for a full-time professorship. In Johns,
the college found not only a fine musicianŠ–and tenor––but a
music educator dedicated to choral singing and to providing amateurs
with professional opportunity to become as musically literate
as possible, to engage little known as well as familiar works
in the repertoire, and to appreciate the joy of ensemble music.
Not untypical of choral groups that are open to the community
as well as to undergraduates, QCCS attracts those who can sight
read and those who have finally decided to step outside the shower.
The mix of levels and voices (typically, a plethora of altos and
dearth of tenors) creates challenge, but Jim and Emily Johns (who
met in a choir) make it clear by their own example that harmony
can be enhanced by difference.
For Jim, conducting
is a natural way to link his love of study (history, musicology)
and teaching. “A conductor must always be concerned about others.”
Emily, who loves working one on one, sees the good teacher as
perforce a good performer. At rehearsals the Maestro puts his
good-humored and modest manner to the service of hard-driving
perfectionism. Sections proceed meticulously until rhythm, pitch
and diction are exactly where he wants them. For Emily, who has
inaugurated an informal series of musicianship classes prior to
rehearsals, the name of the game is fun (at a recent session older
members of the QCCS competed for right-answer “stickies” and went
away chanting, “rhythm is our friend.” Between them, what Jim
and Emily Johns have secured is the original sense of the word
“amateur,” lover, in this case, of choral singing.
Indeed, a phenomenon
in the country is the extraordinary growth in choral societies,
as any weekend concert listings in newspapers will attest. As
school music programs are cut or flounder for lack of funds, Emily
points out, savvy parents seek out alternative solutions, with
the result that children’s choirs are flourishing because parents
are concerned that the arts remain an integral and essential part
of education. But, to judge from the increasing numbers of adults
nation wide who are joining choral ensembles, the attraction to
belong to has wider prompt. What choral societies offer non-academics
is a sense of belonging at a time, as Yeats might say, when the
center does not hold. Music is, like mathematics, the world’s
only universal language. Above history, across cultures, in spite
of war, music endures, and when it engages voices in community
it demonstrates, particularly in a hard time, faith in humanity.#
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