Call Helen McCorkle Finch crazy or brave – I suspect she would answer to either – and if you have the slightest musical lilt to your voice, you can be sure she’ll offer you a job.
She decided last year that Charlotte, full of fine choruses though it is, needed still another. (That’s the crazy part.) She decided to start from scratch with an advertisement; it drew seven people, not counting herself, to the first session. She kept on plugging. (That’s the brave part.)
Today her Charlotte Singers number 46 and are about to present their most diverse concert, a free holiday program Dec. 4 at Providence Presbyterian Church. It’ll range from Vivaldi and Handel to traditional carols to the premiere of a Christmas gospel piece.
She’s been down this creative road before in Park City, Utah, home of the Sundance Film Festival. There she founded the Park City Singers in 1995; that group, she says, went from invisibility to negotiations with the New York Philharmonic to sing on its western tour. (She left before details could be worked out.)
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Finch has an approach most choral directors would consider crazy and brave: Though she’s a tireless recruiter, she does not audition applicants.
“That’s a real risk,” she admits. “I do ask if they can read music or have prior choral experience, which means they can pick up music by ear. I will make CDs for them to listen to. I will play their parts in rehearsals until they are secure. I will teach them the music. But I can’t make anyone go through an audition.”
And she takes a risk on youth: Anyone over 15 – that is, after a singer’s voice has changed – is welcome, and she’s especially proud of her teenaged performers.
Finch’s own musical life began in Greenville, S.C. At 3, she was quizzing the organist of Third Presbyterian Church in her home town. At 5, she was playing piano, without being able to reach the pedals with her feet. She got a bachelor’s degree in music from Furman University and a master’s in piano performance from Georgia State University.
But solo piano wasn’t her destiny; conducting was. At 16, she was directing a small church choir after the regular director went on maternity leave. She found her inspiration in Bingham Vick, fabled conductor of the Furman Singers: “He went for perfection and really made you want to sing for him. I realized you could have fun and be a perfectionist at the same time.”
Though conducting in Park City brought her joy, she waited a long time to take up a baton after her family came to Charlotte in 1998. She had a daughter in kindergarten, so she contented herself by teaching piano and playing at Providence Presbyterian. When the itch to conduct flared again, she put an announcement in the church bulletin and got permission to rehearse and perform in the sanctuary.
Choral directors use an SATB construction – soprano, alto, tenor, bass – but her first crop consisted of just five sopranos and two baritones. She talked a neighbor, an alto, into showing up the next week. She nudged a tenor from her church choir into joining. She found an alto and soprano at the shared interest site meetup.com, Slowly, she achieved the balance she needed. A Christmas concert put the group on the musical map last December; an SRO Broadway concert followed in May.
She thinks small and large at the same time. Small in the sense that she’s detail-oriented in rehearsal: “I focus on expression and tone colors. I’m especially big on diction: I don’t want to hear all those snaky little ‘S’s on the word ‘Christmas.’ ”
And large in the sense that she hopes the group will grow to 75 singers, collaborate with other Charlotte institutions – she mentions the Charlotte Children’s Choir – and be able to afford multiple instrumentalists. (Singers donate $20 apiece now to cover the cost of music and/or musicians, including a lone violinist for a Handel “Messiah” excerpt.)
However many people she recruits, she won’t abandon her ideal of perfection. “We are here to have fun, always, to enjoy being together,” says Finch. “But the music – we take that very seriously.”
The Charlotte Singers
The free Christmas concert “Handel to Gospel” takes place Dec. 4 at 7 p.m. in the sanctuary of Providence Presbyterian Church, 10140 Providence Church Lane. To learn about the group, support it financially or sing with it, e-mail Helen McCorkle Finch at firstname.lastname@example.org or go to thecharlottesingers.org.