October 24, 2012

Finest male voices building brotherhood, note by note

Listen up, Charlotte: There's a new choir in town that may just redefine the concept of dude power, vocally speaking.

Listen up, Charlotte: There’s a new choir in town that may just redefine the concept of dude power, vocally speaking.

Carolina Men’s Chorus had its genesis June 5 at the 25th-anniversary celebration of Mecklenburg Ministries at the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center. Carey Cannon and David Tang, both considered magnets for excellent choral music in the community, had the serendipitous notion of assembling an all-male choir to sing a couple of songs for the program.

The effect was the musical equivalent of capturing lightning in a bottle.

After the Mecklenburg Ministries gig, many of the hand-picked singers – themselves among the cream of Charlotte’s vocal crop – approached Cannon about creating more opportunities for them to sing together. For the sake of administration during its start-up phase, Tang suggested bringing the group under the umbrella of his Firebird Arts Alliance, a nonprofit entity that fosters innovative and collaborative projects among arts organizations.

So what was supposed to be a one-off performance has turned into a full-fledged ensemble comprising some of Charlotte’s finest male singers, about 25 so far. Under Tang’s management and Cannon’s baton, Carolina Men’s Chorus (CMC) is following a model not utilized elsewhere in Charlotte. Cannon and Tang expect to maintain a fluid roster of 35 to 40 auditioned singers who may not be available to sing all performances on the choir schedule. Having a “deep bench,” however, will allow the group to perform without compromising its musical integrity.

Therefore, recruitment is ongoing.

Moreover, unlike most choirs that rehearse weekly, CMC allows for flexible schedules among its members. Since all of its singers are already committed to one or more other choirs, CMC asks its personnel to rehearse only a few times immediately prior to scheduled performances. Whereas most choirs’ rehearsals are spent pounding out notes, CMC members are expected to learn the notes on their own, and come together as a group only to fine-tune and polish the music.

“We recognize that a lot of these guys are conducting their own choirs, so they don’t often have the opportunity to sing themselves,” says Cannon, who himself is minister of music at Providence Baptist Church and conducts the Cantare ensemble of Charlotte Children’s Choir, the UNC Charlotte Glee Club and the choir at Mooresville’s Pine Lake Prep School. “Carolina Men’s Chorus doesn’t tread on anyone else’s turf, but allows male singers of the same high caliber to have fun and make beautiful music together.”

The notion of an all-male ensemble is close to Cannon and Tang’s hearts. For almost five years before coming to Charlotte in 2004, Cannon was a singing soldier, holding the rank of staff sergeant as a bass in the elite U.S. Army Men’s Chorus based in Washington, D.C. While working on an advanced degree in conducting, Tang sang in Yale University’s exclusive Whiffenpoofs, the famed all-male touring ensemble. So both understand the fraternal bond that men’s choirs can build.

They also saw a gap in the choral landscape in Charlotte that a select group of male singers could fill. The Gay Men’s Chorus of Charlotte, the only other all-male choir in town outside of church settings, has a strong following, but its mission is somewhat different insofar as it incorporates issues relating both to gay pride and music.

Cannon also envisions CMC as a way to express what he calls the “poignant power of men singing together.”

“I look out on Sunday morning in church and I see men holding hymnals and not singing, or worse yet, standing with their arms folded and not singing,” he says. “Somehow, we lost these guys about the time their voices changed, and they’ve been led to believe that singing is emasculating and not the thing to do. Especially in such a sports-saturated town, we’ve lost places for men to sing.

“David and I want to change that,” says Cannon, who is a doctoral candidate at UNC Greensboro’s School of Music. “While I was in the Army chorus, I had moments singing at the White House when I’ve witnessed lives being changed through music. That sounds cheesy, but it’s true.”

Tang agrees. “In our public schools, boys are encouraged to go shoot hoops or throw a ball, but we don’t foster male singing like we should,” he says. “With this new choir we want to achieve and maintain a high degree of musicianship with smart, exceptionally talented choral singers, and at the same time show boys and young men how cool it is to sing.”

The choir’s broad repertoire will range from early church music to Disney-pop-jazz-Broadway, with a big dose of patriotic pieces, spirituals and other Americana thrown in. Expect to hear a full, resonant sound reminiscent of the Army choir of which Cannon was a part.

Carolina Men’s Chorus will perform for the first time since its official formation at “American Reflections: A Salute to Veteran’s Day” on Nov. 10 and 11. As guest artists of Carolina Voices’ Festival Singers under the direction of Donna Hill, CMC will perform both on its own and with the host choir on the concert, a tribute to veterans and military families.

Inviting CMC to join Festival Singers on its annual fall concert was an easy decision for Hill. “There was overwhelming excitement from all parties after the Mecklenburg Ministries performance,” said Hill, who was assistant conductor of Oratorio Singers for several years under Tang. “David has always been a catalyst for creativity and thinking outside the box. And Carey brings such enthusiasm to any project he undertakes.

“It just made such sense for this men’s group to come together, and for Carolina Voices to support that effort. Carolina Voices” – of which Tang was artistic director 2008-2011 – “is all about promoting choral arts, and this concert is one good way to introduce them to an audience of choral music lovers,” said Hill.

The concert will include an excerpt from Karl Jenkins’ “Armed Man: A Mass for Peace” and Joseph Martin’s “Song for the Unsung Hero,” plus familiar favorites like “America the Beautiful,” “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “Amazing Grace” and the Armed Forces Medley, which Cannon will conduct.

David Carpenter, who sings in Cannon’s church choir and Festival Singers, was one of the singers June 5 who believed the men’s choir should be extended. “I enjoyed that experience so much,” says Carpenter, “and felt honored to be in such an impressive group. With a men’s choir singing at this level, here was a whole new way to express what’s in your heart.”

Kevin Hinson, also a member of Festival Singers, came to CMC for several reasons, including the chance to sing again with his brother, Jeff Hinson. “I love singing with Festival (a mixed-voice ensemble),” says Kevin Hinson, “but there’s something about singing with all men that’s just a really neat, neat experience. I know most of these guys, and have sung with them in one choir or another over the years, but when we’re all together, it’s just special. It’s an incredibly fun environment. When (Jeff and I) were approached about joining, it was a no-brainer.”

Craig Estep, a tenor who conducts two choirs of his own, says his interest was sparked by the musical reputations of the two leaders, the quality of the other singers, and the chance to recharge his own creative batteries.

“As conductors we can give only so much before we need to be refueled,” says Estep, who has toured internationally as a professional opera singer. “Of all the choirs I’ve been in, I’ve never had the opportunity to sing in an all-men’s group. I’m very honored to be a part of this one.”

Francis Crochet, another tenor, said he needed a new challenge and calls Cannon one of the best conductors for whom he has ever sung. “Carey is not satisfied with good or the status quo,” said Crochet. “He’s not satisfied until the sound is superlative. He brings a level of professionalism that makes us all work harder  He’s requiring a lot of us, and I’m learning a lot in the process.”

Bill Peterson, a familiar local bass, praises the new group’s founders and format. “After (Mecklenburg Ministries) a lot of us realized how special this group was, and we tried to persuade Carey and David to find some way to keep it alive, and they have!” Peterson says. By the same token, “Carey emphasized he didn’t want CMC to conflict with other established groups. So the compressed rehearsal schedule works really well.”

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