Originally published in The Weekly Packet, December 19, 2013
Bagaduce Chorale celebrates 40 years as founder prepares to step down
Mary Cheyney Gould accompanies the Bagaduce Chorale on the organ at its Christmas concert last weekend.
by Rich Hewitt
It was about this time of year 40 years ago when the seeds for what would become the Bagaduce Chorale were planted.
Chorale founder Mary Cheyney Gould was then a newly minted Mainer who was building her home in Brooksville. She and a neighbor, Susie Walker, had joined a chorus in Belfast, Walker singing, Gould as accompanist. Their first concert was on January 6, 1974.
“It was a winter like this,” Gould recalled. “It was cold and there was snow and ice. Susie said, ‘We’ve been traveling back and forth to Belfast from Brooksville. Why can’t we sing in Brooksville?’ I wondered if anyone would be interested and she said ‘you do the music, I’ll get the people.’ I said, ‘OK.’”
A few weeks later, in February 1974, the Bagaduce Chorale was born. Although at that point it had no name, the group, which held its first rehearsal at the old Curtis House in Brooksville overlooking the Bagaduce River, consisted of two men and nine women.
The group sang music written for soprano, alto and baritone because there were no tenors.
It was several months before the group would sing in public. They were invited to sing at the Brooksville Historical Society variety show at the community center. For that, they needed a name. One member suggested the “Eggy-Noggins,” but most of the group thought that was silly. Since most of the members at that time all lived right around the Bagaduce River, it seemed only natural that that should be part of the name. And so, they were the Bagaduce Chorale.
From those 11 singers, the Bagaduce Chorale has grown to become an 80-plus voice chorus whose name has become synonymous with “high-caliber” vocal music throughout the state of Maine and beyond.
Gould enjoys recalling those early days and the humble beginnings of the group.
Early rehearsals were held in the third grade room at the elementary school in Brooksville.
“We sat on top of the desks because the chairs weren’t big enough,” Gould said. “We’d always move the desks around and the third-grade teacher got mad because we never got the chair with the purple crayons back in the right place.”
As the group grew, they began looking for a larger spot where they could practice. They had performed a concert at the First Congregational Church of Blue Hill and soon began rehearsing there. The Blue Hill location was more accessible to more people in the region who were interested in singing and “it was more comfortable.”
For most of the early years, the Chorale was a “you come, you sing” group. They never held auditions. An invitation to join with the Bangor Symphony Orchestra and its new conductor Werner Torkanowsky to lead a “Messiah” sing-along, changed that.
“We met at the Blue Hill Congregational Church and 104 people showed up,” she recalled. “We didn’t have enough robes, we didn’t have enough music. Most of all, we didn’t have enough air in the place.”
The ensuing sing-along, however, was less than spectacular, Gould said. It was held in the old Bangor Auditorium which was essentially a gymnasium. There were heating conduits all around that clanged and banged when the heat was on.
“When we performed, we couldn’t hear the orchestra and they couldn’t hear us,” she said. “It was not a great performance. But we had a good time.”
Good times seem to a motto for the Chorale. Gould recalled that there were always a lot of parties and outings, including a regatta up the Bagaduce River to perform in a field in Penobscot and singing the Hallelujah Chorus in the fog on the shore in Stonington. But it has always been the music that had drawn the performers and the audiences and that continues to draw them.
“People love to sing, and if you can give them something they can feel good about having spent all that time, it’s a wonderful thing,” she said. “Even the rehearsals themselves. You just have fun in the doing and the learning of it, learning that wonderful music. I’ve certainly enjoyed every minute of it.”
Gould always says that her favorite music is the piece she’s currently working on, but she said there have been some pieces and performances that have stood out over the years, among them: traveling to Boston to perform Leonard Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms,” at the Old North Church; and performing Bloch’s “Sacred Service” in Hebrew with a cantor at a service at a synagogue in Bangor on Friday night, then performing it again the next night in concert.
Along the way, the Chorale also spawned the Bagaduce Music Lending Library, which just celebrated its 30th anniversary. The library was born of necessity because the Chorale, after its first 10 years, had built a collection of music that needed a home. Gould, Marcia Chapman and Fritz Jahoda, who also wanted a home for his lifelong collection of music so that it could be used by everyone, created the lending library. It first operated out of Gould’s garage and later moved to its current location in Blue Hill. The collection has grown over the years as has the membership. Gould said the library currently has borrowing members in all 50 states and approximately 29 countries.
Gould stepped down as the director of Chorale after 25 years at the helm, although she has remained as director emerita and always conducts the “Benediction,” the traditional closing piece for Chorale concerts. Bronwyn Kortge has directed the Chorale for the past 13 years.
Gould notes that Kortge was the fourth candidate to audition as director and it was “love at first sight.”
“She loved them and they loved her,” she said. “They made wonderful music together.”
At the passing of that baton, the new director asked Gould to remain as accompanist.
“I told the audience [at last weekend’s Christmas concert] that I was so grateful for her having done that,” Gould said. “It allowed me to continue to have all the fun without any of the responsibilities. It really has been a blessing for me. It’s been wonderful to be a part of it.”
But, at 89, Gould said she told the Chorale board that it was time to step down.
“I’ve already had my 89th birthday, so I’m in my 90th year, and 40 years [with the Chorale] seemed like a nice round number to call it quits.”
She’s not going anywhere quite yet, however. Gould accompanied the Chorale for last weekend’s winter concert and will be at the piano again in the spring for her final spring concert.