GREENWICH, N.Y. -- Less than three weeks into the New Year, and Battenkill Chorale is wasting no time. As the chorus heads into its 18th year, artistic director and founder Janet McGhee is gearing up for the premiere performance of 2013. The performances of Rossini’s "Petite Messe Solennelle" take place at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, in Greenwich, N.Y. at 3 p.m. Jan. 19 and 20.
"This piece of music is a total blast from beginning to end," McGhee said.
The chorale is made up of 90 people, who don’t audition, but go through an interview process with McGhee.
During the interview McGhee and the applicant discuss the singer’s personal goals and the style of the chorale. She said that if an applicant doesn’t join the choir, it’s usually because she and the applicant have decided together it isn’t a good fit.
"It brings a diverse group of people together a common goal," she said. Even the name of the group was chosen with the idea of inclusion in mind.
"I wanted a name that had a broad regional appeal, it was really important to me to cross the state boarder. I wanted to make people in this region feel like this was this chorus," McGhee said.
McGhee estimates that the chorale has had over 200 members during its existence, some of who were part of the original 45 who showed up to her initial call for singers 18 years ago. Of all the singers she’s worked with through the chorale, McGhee said she can remember each and every one of them.
"Over the course of 18 years there are lots of stories, lots of tragedies, lots of successes, lots of celebrations," she said in reference to her personal connection with each of the members both former and current.
"We’re more than a really really fine choir that sings well, we’re also a caring family that is there for one another," she added.
The chorale’s accompanist and another founding member, who switches between pipe organ and piano while performing with the chorale, Erich Borden, said there are both professional musicians in the group and non-professionals such as doctors, writers, and filmmakers who like singing.
"Not all are musical, but they all love music," he said. "And (McGhee is) able to make it work with people who can’t even read music."
"We perform very well," Al Bashevkin, who has been part of the group for ten years, said. "I am not a musically trained person and never really thought that I could participate in a group such as this. But I do ... and for the most part, I’m there with the music."
One trait McGhee, who trained at the New England Conservatory as a conductor, is known for amongst her singers is her ability to run a rehearsal that is efficient yet fun.
According to Borden, McGhee will keep a minute-by-minute itinerary scheduled for each nearly two-hour rehearsal.
"I can’t help but run an efficient, tight rehearsal Š that comes second nature to me," McGhee said.
But she also strives to create a comforting environment that is warm and welcoming.
"I like to think that I create a safe-zone," McGhee said.
One example of fun coming into the practice space is the annual Halloween rehearsal, during which singers were encouraged to come in costume.
Borden recalled it fondly, remembering that a 65-year-old woman came with dyed hair, an unlit cigarette and an elaborate dragon tattoo which had been painted on her back over the course of several hours the previous day. She was initially regarded as a stranger before the members of the chorus recognized their incognito compatriot.
That year McGhee arrived dressed as an appetizer table offering actual hors d’oeuvres to her singers.
For this performance Borden, who got his first gig at the age of 15, is performing on piano with Neil Keen performing on harmonium, a type of reed organ.
"It’s kind of an unusual composition," Borden said. "This concert, it’s just basically fun. It’s a cross between an opera and a Catholic Mass."
"I’m excited about the piece of music, I think it’s perfect for the chorale and our audience, McGhee said. "It’s gorgeous music Š (The singers) really own this music Š they sound like a million bucks."
"I’m known for choosing really challenging music," she added.
The chorale is working with four professional soloists who have come in to perform four arias as part of the show.
Nicholas T. Lasoff, a baritone who has performed with Battenkill since 1996, said "Rossini’s music is easily accessible and will bring pleasure to any listener. It has moments of great drama, tenderness, and humor. It’s just as good as an afternoon at the opera without all the silly costume changes and plot twists."
According to McGhee one of the factors adding to what makes the chorale unique is the area.
"You won’t believe what happens, right here in Washington county," she said. "You’d expect to find (a chorus of this quality) in an urban setting. But you wouldn’t expect to find a really good choir in a rural village Š it’s just kind of unheard of."
"I’m the lucky one who gets to be in the middle of all this Š I have the best seat in the house," she added.