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Berkshire Summer Sing Offers Enthusiasts A Joyful Connection

Josh Landes
The first Summer Sing of the season in Pittsfield's Taft Recital Hall, on the campus of the Berkshire Music School. Paula Nuss leads while Memrie Kelly plays piano.

The Berkshire Concert Choir held its first Summer Sing of the season Tuesday night.

“I’ve been reading things recently about how if a group is well rehearsed, they even breathe together. And their hearts beat together. It’s an interesting thought," said Paula Nuss, formerly Pittsfield’s Taconic High School choir director. She's has been the Artistic Director of the Berkshire Concert Choir for five years. Nuss spoke to WAMC at the Berkshire Music School’s Taft Recital Hall, tucked behind the courthouses of downtown Pittsfield.

"This is a gathering of folks who like to sing," she told WAMC. "It’s been advertised, so tonight we’re doing the 4th movement of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, the Ode to Joy.”

A Summer Sing isn’t like the more regimented experience of the Concert Choir.

“It’s a chance to get together and sing a piece of music that you love, and that you’ve always wanted to sing and haven’t had the chance to do, or sang it 40 years ago and would like to do it again, just for fun," said Nuss. "No pressure of performance, just to do it.”

“Honestly, I have no idea what’s being sung. I just wanted to sing with people during the summer," said Paul McFarland, a Williamstown native who drove the 20-something miles south to Pittsfield for the sing.

“I sang in madrigal group, regular group. Sang in all-district choir, all-state choir. Sang a little bit in college but not much. Then went a long time, probably 30 years without singing at all. And only after 9/11 did I start singing again," McFarland told WAMC. "Hard to explain why, but I did. And I’ve sung quite a bit since then.”

McFarland said the unadorned beauty of singing acapella in a small group — connecting with his fellow singers, hearing them and meeting them in harmony — was his path forward from the day that still hangs over America.

“I was looking for ways to connect with people, for ways to find joy, for ways to express the hurt and the pain," he told WAMC. "And what I found was ways to find joy. So it’s not at all what I had intended. But it’s what happened.”

“Well I have to say, I feel like the burden of responsibility is really on me, because if I break down, the whole thing is just going to stop, like a big train that just… stops!," laughed Memrie Kelly, the Berkshire Concert Choir’s accompanist. “I grew up in Mississippi, and in the South, all the little girls have to learn the piano so they can accompany in Sunday school. So my mother sent me down the street to Mrs. Tremble to learn to play the piano. She was a sweet little old lady with quite a tremor. I still — sometimes I’ll just shake my hand in memory of her.”

That set her off on a lifelong career in music.

“I have had the occasional temporary office job, but for the most part I have kept the SpaghettiOs on the table by playing the piano,” said Kelly.

She relocated to Housatonic from New York City with her husband after his retirement in 2008.

“We might touch on a few sections before we try to just blast through the whole thing," said Kelly. "This particular work that we’ll be singing tonight is about 20 minutes long when it’s done from beginning to end, and we’ll probably spend the first hour breaking down some of the parts and working on entrances and making sure everybody has a little bit of confidence going into it.”

And with that, Kelly and Nuss take to the stage. McFarland finds a seat among the 30 or so attendees in the little hall framed by potted plants, framed pictures of lutes, and tasseled curtains.

“I’m one of the oldest members, going back to when the choir was in South Congregational Church in Pittsfield, and that was back in the early 70s. And then here we are, almost 50 years later," said Robert "Francis" Stone. He's from Lee, and says choral music is his life. He began at 14.

“When I went into my first choir in high school, I had 60 instant friends,” said Stone. He feels passionately that the music will carry him through the end of his days. “I can sing it til I drop! I can do this til I drop! I’m 75 now, so it’s — it’s just a thrill.”

The next installments of the sing are scheduled for July 31st, August 9th, and August 20th. While admission is free, singers are asked to bring a non-perishable food donation for the Berkshire Dream Center located at the Morningside Baptist Church in Pittsfield.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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