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Berkshire Hills Chorus Celebrates 50th Anniversary With Pittsfield Concert

A room full of colorfully dressed women stand in a semi circle around a woman conducting
Josh Landes
The Berkshire Hills Chorus practices

A Berkshire County women’s chorus celebrates its 50th anniversary with a concert in Pittsfield this weekend.

The 24 women who make up the Berkshire Hills Chorus offer a cross section of life in the westernmost county in Massachusetts.

“We have teachers and psychiatrists and nurses and retirees and secretaries. So it’s anybody, any woman who just needs to get out of the house and enjoy themselves – that’s what we’re there for,” said co-director Gail Wojtkowiak.

The chorus is a part of Sweet Adelines International.

“It’s an international organization of women singing acapella four part harmony music, and we all sing in English and we all learn a varied repertoire of songs that we can all sing when we get together,” said co-director Pat Feldman.

The Berkshire chapter was established in 1969 by the wives of a parallel international men’s singing group called the Hillsmen. Wojtkowiak was first brought into the fold at the urging of her sister in-law.

“It was that first chord when they start singing, and it rings in you, and then you just can’t let it go,” she told WAMC.

Rehearsing before Saturday’s 50th anniversary concert, members shared stories of seeing that same reverberation in others.

“I know it sounds corny, but when you start singing these songs and you look in the people’s eyes when they’re listening to you, and you see their emotion – it gives you goosebumps," said Wojtkowiak. “We were performing at the Red Lion Inn for one of the Christmas sings, and we had a small group, an octet who was singing ‘Weekend In New England.’ And a gentleman sitting in the chair in front of us just burst into tears. And we had to keep it together, get to the end of the song. And he said that just brought back so many memories. So that’s what it’s about – it’s about telling them the story, and letting them feel it the way we feel it.”

“We often sing in some of the nursing homes, in the dementia units, in the closed units," said chorus member Leslie Murray. “These are people who sometimes have no memory, are not talking, not interacting with people, and we sing a song and they light up, and they start singing it with us. And something happens within them.”

“For me, It’s just so much fun," said Feldman. “I sing all week long because I teach elementary school and I direct choruses of children, but to belong to this chorus of women, it’s such a sisterhood, and I feel like I could count on any one of our members if I needed something, and it just is such a great feeling.”

The chorus – which performs its numbers entirely from memory, along with costume changes and movement – has prepared a dozen new songs to premiere at the celebratory concert.

“Well, one that that we’ve performed different places is ‘Can You Feel The Love Tonight’ by Elton John,” Feldman told WAMC.

Saturday night, The Berkshire Hills Chorus will mark a half-century of song with a concert at Barrington Stage Company’s Boyd-Quinson Mainstage at 7.

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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