Living

Voice of authority

Pearl Rosenthal, 91, leads the Carriage Club Chorus. “Enunciate, look happy, breathe,” she tells them.  She started the chorus four days after moving into Brookdale Carriage Club in May 2008.
Pearl Rosenthal, 91, leads the Carriage Club Chorus. “Enunciate, look happy, breathe,” she tells them. She started the chorus four days after moving into Brookdale Carriage Club in May 2008. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

At 91, Pearl Rosenthal still commands attention.

As her chorus – and make no mistake, this is her chorus – rehearses for their upcoming concert at another retirement community, all eyes are trained on her.

“Enunciate, look happy, breathe,” she tells members of the Brookdale Carriage Club Providence choir assembled in a grouping of chairs for a dress rehearsal in the lobby. And then she turns to her pianist, Matthew Davis, 31, and indicates she’s ready for him to begin.

The choir – 13 women and four men – on this hot June day, begins: “If they could see me now/ That little gang of mine …”

Rosenthal waves her hands and tells them to stop. She insists they stand up. “You all look too comfortable,” she jokes.

And so they stand. All 17 of them, even though a couple lean on canes or walkers.

Rosenthal runs a tight ship. But not so tight that chorus members have to audition. Anyone who has a song in his or her heart can join.

The chorus brings joy, and it is so important to bring movement and music to our seniors. It feeds the soul.

Samantha Duncan, resident programs director at the Carriage Club

She started the group four days after she moved into the retirement community in 2008. Just three people showed up for the first rehearsal. She kept holding weekly practices. And more and more people came. And those who kept coming kept getting better.

One problem with a chorus in a retirement community is the inevitable loss of members. (The current roster is 21 voices strong.) “We lost a couple of good sopranos recently,” Rosenthal laments. “One died and one moved away.”

Fortunately there are no age restrictions. Samantha Duncan, the 31-year-old resident programs director at the Carriage Club, asked if she could join. She fits right in. “The chorus brings joy, and it is so important to bring movement and music to our seniors,” she said. “It feeds the soul.”

Practice makes perfect

Rosenthal puts her chorus through the paces once a week. This isn’t just for fun, after all. This chorus hits the road to entertain. The group’s summer schedule includes concerts at Waltonwood, Atria Merrywood, Plantation Estates, Aldersgate, Bethel Church in Cornelius and on their own home turf.

The group performs show tunes (from “Oklahoma,” “South Pacific,” “Oliver”) and old standards (by Cole Porter, the Gershwins, Irving Berlin) all the way up to “modern” masters. Like Elvis and Frankie Valli.

And who chooses the group’s repertoire? Rosenthal, of course. Chorus members can make recommendations, but ultimately she decides the set list.

During the recent dress rehearsal, Rosenthal told the group it was time to sing Que Sera.”

“Oh, that’s a cute one,” a chorus member said, to no one in particular.

“The future’s not ours to see,” they belt out.

There’s very little talking during rehearsal. And no idle chatter between songs.

Nearly everyone is tapping toes in time to the music. Others are reading the lyrics on the sheet music in their three-ring binders. Some look up for direction from their leader.

All are turned out in red shirts or blouses, khaki pants. Hair is done. Makeup is on. This is show biz. “They work hard,” Rosenthal said of her songsters.

“I don’t want to wear you out,” she said to the group after four songs during their rehearsal. (And after the third song, she let her singers sit.) Everyone tells her they can keep going. Besides, there’s plenty of time before they have to board their bus to get to their afternoon concert.

Rosenthal is a task master, but she’s also quick with praise. And – always – she reminds them to breathe.

Some of her singers had been in church choirs before they moved to the Carriage Club, but many are singing for the first time. Rosenthal insists on teaching them proper technique. And she won’t hesitate to tell the group to start over if she doesn’t like what she’s hearing.

A Carriage Club resident’s young grandson came to visit recently and heard Rosenthal leading a rehearsal. The 6-year-old told his grandparent, “That lady is one mean mama.”

Rosenthal shares the story proudly.

Pearl’s a pro

Rosenthal’s energy is irresistible. And she knows how to coax the best out of her singers.

“Growing up, my house was filled with musicians,” she said in her still-thick Boston accent. And not amateurs. Her father played violin with the Boston Symphony.

“Dad wanted me to take piano,” she recalls. “But I hated it. And I was a stubborn kid. I saw an ad in the paper for tryouts for a scholarship to the vocal department of the New England Conservatory of Music. I applied, and two weeks later, a letter comes in the mail telling me I got the scholarship.”

It was too late for her dad to stop 16-year-old Pearl.

“That was the end of my piano lessons,” she said. After high school, Rosenthal went on to be a voice major at Boston University.

After she married and raised a family, she kept performing – in her temple choir and in local shows in the Boston area. Before moving to Charlotte – to be closer to one of her sons – she was in a retirement community in W. Palm Beach, Fla. She started a chorus there, too. “That was when I was younger,” she said. “In my 80s.”

Piano man

She may not be the piano virtuoso her dad had wanted her to be, but she recognizes talent on the keyboard when she hears it.

Matthew Davis has been Rosenthal’s accompanist since 2012. While decades apart, the two have a close rapport. “Matthew and I read each other very well,” Rosenthal said.

Both the chorus leader and her pianist are perfectionists. Davis will tighten his lips or clench his jaw if he hears a note that’s off.

The chorus is made up of volunteers, but the position of pianist is paid. (“And Matthew well deserves it,” Rosenthal said.) And Davis had to audition for it. He tried out after Rosenthal fired two of her previous pianists. “They didn’t do what I asked,” she said.

Davis has several gigs as a professional pianist. When he’s not playing with the Carriage Club Chorus, he’s at Opera Carolina, Community School of the Arts or Epworth United Methodist in Concord.

He loves his work with Rosenthal and the Carriage Club seniors. “The rehearsals are as much fun as the performances,” he said.

“What makes this gig so much fun is Pearl,” he said. “When I’ve worked for nonprofits that are struggling to pay me something, they remind me that it’s an ‘act of service.’ Pearl told me upfront that it’s ‘for the money.’”

Davis’ primary genre is classical, and he’s enjoyed expanding his repertoire to include other styles. “Pearl has overseen my learning of songs from show tunes to jazz standards,” he said. “It’s like having a course in learning how to have fun with music and not always take things so seriously.”

Occasionally, chorus member Dorothy Brubaker, 96, joins Davis on piano. The two played a duet at the recent rehearsal. Fingers – all 20 of them – were flying across the keys.

The performance was jubilant. The choir and audience assembled in the lobby applauded enthusiastically. Rosenthal looked satisfied.

“Come in together, be together, end together,” she often reminds the chorus about their timing. It’s pretty good advice for life, too.

Book ’em.

Ever since their first performance at Sunrise Assisted Living in 2009, The Carriage Club Chorus has taken their show on the road. Bonnie Sturkey is a chorus member – an alto – who doubles as booking agent.

Sometimes she cold-calls retirement communities and churches to offer their services. But most often, people seek her out. Want to book Pearl Rosenthal and her singers? Call Carriage Club Resident Programs Director Samantha Duncan at 704-365-8551, ext. 115.

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