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Mercersburg chorus celebrates 30 years of entertaining audiences

December 05, 2005|by BONNIE H. BRECHBILL

bonnieb@herald-mail.com

MERCERSBURG, Pa. - After his mother's funeral last Friday, professional singer Paul McIlvaine of Alexandria, Va., had only a few hours until a rehearsal with the Mercersburg Area Community Chorus. The group was scheduled to perform at 8 p.m., and McIlvaine is the tenor soloist.

He has worked with professional groups in New York and other cities, and to some of those groups he said he would have sent his regrets and hoped they could find another tenor on short notice.

But in his many contacts with the Mercersburg chorus, he has found them to be "normal, warm human beings. I came up here at 4 p.m. I could sing all weekend or I could be staring at the four walls. Music is therapy."

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After the final concert Sunday afternoon, McIlvaine said he felt uplifted.

"They were so comforting to me."

His mother, Mary McIlvaine, 90, was a professional singer from Philadelphia who sang for War Bond rallies in the 1940s, he said.

Founded in the mid-1970s with 40 members, the Mercersburg Area Community Chorus is celebrating 30 years of performances.

The 112-voice group performs in the Mercersburg Academy Chapel, a magnificent structure of high stone arches and stained-glass windows. The chapel is amazingly quiet during performances, with none of the usual rustling and coughing heard at concerts.

Conductor Richard Rotz led the group in Alan Hovhaness's "Magnificat." The 20th-century composer's music blends Eastern and Western styles.

The selection was "a bit adventurous," Rotz said. "We could have celebrated with traditional music from our past. We wanted to be outside the box a little, to show that we're creatively alive and kicking."

Professional soloists who come in to sing for the performances have found the experience uplifting.

Contralto Kathryn Honan-Carter of Alexandria, Va., has done solo work with the chorus since 1993.

"It's not Christmas unless I sing at Mercersburg," she said while preparing for Sunday's performance. "It always seems to snow. It's magical."

Soprano Jan Aaland of Frederick, Md., a freelance singer who teaches at Hood College, said that it is "a wonderful experience to sing in this cathedral-like place."

The chorus and orchestra are "a wonderfully trained group of people. They're like a professional chorus that sings with heart," she said.

Bass Gregory Lowery said simply that he loves the people and singing in the chapel.

Mary Lou Eisenhower of McConnellsburg, Pa., is a charter member of the chorus. She was soprano soloist the first year the chorus performed, and for many years thereafter.

"The chorus has grown and the audience has grown, along with taste for all types of good music," she said.

Eisenhower noted that the group started with one Christmas concert, and now performs four to accommodate the crowd.

"And they still come two hours ahead to get a seat," she said.

A church choir director all her life, Eisenhower said the chorus works very hard to learn the difficult music that the group performs.

"It's a totally enriching experience for all of us, no matter the level of ability," she said.

Mercersburg resident Peggy J. Sword complimented McIlvaine on his performance.

"His voice came through so beautifully. It was a tribute to his mother," she said.

"Music is to be enjoyed by the audience and the participants," McIlvaine said. "When you lose sight of that and become egocentric, it loses something. This group hasn't done that. This is what music is meant to be."

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