On March 3, 2020 Deborah Harper Bono was enjoying her weekly rehearsal with the Fairfield County Chorale.
A tenor — a systems analyst by day — said he’d been following Johns Hopkins’ COVID dashboard, and was worried. The Chorale was planning a trip to Italy in May; that country was already hit hard.
Five days later — just before a Chorale performance — he told Bono, “This is much worse than people realize. It’s really scary.”
The afternoon performance at Norwalk City Hall went beautifully. That night though, municipal officials announced the building would be closed indefinitely.
The Fairfield County Chorale is a venerable institution. Founded nearly 60 years ago, it has presented more than 250 choral works (“from Bach to Bernstein, Brahms to Britten”), including world premieres, in venues including Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center, and throughout Europe.
Approximately half its more than 100 members — including executive vice president Bono — are Westport residents. Ruth Steinkraus Cohen was a founder.
When the pandemic halted rehearsals and performances, many singing groups went on hiatus.
The Fairfield County Chorale never considered that option. Despite an older demographic — some singers have been with the Chorale for over 30 years — the group pivoted quickly. Leaders — including president Art Gang, another Westporter — embraced technology. Members quickly followed suit.
The day after that March 8 performance, the regular Monday night rehearsal was canceled. But music director David Rosenmeyer resumed them the next week, online. “We don’t know what we’ll do,” he told his singers. “But we won’t miss a beat.”
He soon added lessons on sight reading, and music history and theory, on Wednesday night. The office manager helped members figure out Zoom.
The season usually ends in May. Though that concert was canceled, Monday rehearsals continued through July.
Bono was “thunderstruck by the enthusiasm, support and innovation” of her fellow singers and leaders.
They took August off. But then they regrouped, figuring out how to make December’s online performance work.
Rosenmeyer chose familiar music — a mix of holiday, slightly spiritual and multicultural songs. The finale was “Amazing Grace.”
On Zoom, singers do not rehearse out loud together; everyone is on mute. But over 3 months, each recorded their own parts at home. Rosenmeyer taught himself video production, to stitch every voice together.
No one knew how it would all come out. Bono — who did not see the final product until it went live — was “gobsmacked.”
A surprise benefit of the concert — livestreamed once, then available twice more — was that the Chorale reached an audience far beyond the usual Norwalk City Hall. Thousands of friends, relatives and former members watched from as far as London, Tel Aviv and Singapore.
Donations poured in.
And the FCC gained over 20 new members. Some were newcomers to the area. Others were college students, whose own chorales had shut down.
A second performance, in March, featured a reimagined Vivaldi’s “Gloria,” with an electric guitar and Argentinian instruments. It was a way to look ahead to spring, through a bright, hopeful piece.
“Few organizations could have navigated this. I can’t say enough about David’s energy, and our embrace of all this,” Bono says.
“We’re not digital natives. But we got something none of us could have imagined.”
The Fairfield County Chorale is preparing for a live return in December. Their concert will be part season, part on homage to 80-year-old composer Adolphus Hailstork.
Then comes March — Mozart or Fouré’s “Requiem” — and Handel’s “Messiah” near Easter.
“We’ll end the season with hope and grandness,” Bono promises. “Whatever the limitations, we’ll rise to the occasion.”
(For more information on the Fairfield County Chorale, click here.)