One of the many pleasures of living in the Wood River Valley (oh, let me count the ways …) is the strong sense of community that infuses daily life in this mountain resort. In the area’s lively arts milieu, many groups perform or present their art for free or at a reduced rate as a means of giving back to the community that allows them to pursue their passion in such a beautiful place. A prime example of this generosity is Caritas Chorale.
Caritas is a Latin word that translates to charity or loving-kindness. The group is aptly named, as it is a collection of non-professional singers that produces a distinctly professional sound and performs for free several times a year. As the name implies, Caritas is an act of giving out of the goodness of their hearts.
Music director R.L. Rowsey arrived at Caritas 15 years ago after a stellar career in commercial theater. “I started out as the fifth bass in the back row,” he smiled. “I love choral music and was happy as a clam in the back row!” But he was soon tapped to take the top position. He said that part of what drives his passion for Caritas is the opportunity to create community.
“If a community is to have a vibrant arts scene, then it has to have community arts groups where everyone gets to participate,” he said. “With Caritas, anyone has the opportunity to sing. There are no auditions, no requirements. If you want to sing, you can. Providing that service to the community really delights me. It fits me to a ‘T’.”
The chorale typically performs a holiday program in December and two or three concerts during the year. Rowsey said he chooses music based on two criteria: Is the music right for the group, and is it right for the community. “What’s a challenge for the group?” he said. “Do we need a piece to work on tone, harmony or vowel colors? And what does the community need to hear?”
Concert material ranges from a classic Mozart oratorio, to a modern requiem by John Rutter, to arrangements of pop music such as last season’s concert, “Day of Hope & Light.” “The music was very accessible and just a lot of fun,” Rowsey said. “It was just right for the people there.”
Cherie Kessler, who joined Caritas shortly after its inception in 1999, said she likes pieces that challenge her. “For the bicentennial, we sang a commissioned piece about [the] Lewis and Clark [Expedition] with music by Boise composer David Alan Earnest and lyrics by Diane Josephy Peavey,” she recounted. “It was full of dissonant chord structures and time signature changes.”
Kessler is no stranger to the footlights. For 30 years, she was well known to Ketchum audiences as Kitty Litter, a member of the beloved Fabulous Vuarnettes, a girl group with bitingly funny lyrics, tight harmonies and outrageous Carmen Miranda-like headpieces.
When asked what it’s like to perform with Caritas, she didn’t hesitate. “I just feel a deep joy within me,” she said. “It’s truly a part of who I am. Giving music to the community fills my heart. The music is uplifting and often brings tears to my eyes.”
Kessler is the chair of this year’s gala, the chorale’s principal fundraising vehicle. The sit-down dinner will be held Sept. 16 at the Limelight Hotel in Ketchum. The theme will be “Magic in the Air” and will feature a magician as well as songs performed by the chorale.
“As with any nonprofit, the generosity of our benefactors makes it all possible,” said Kessler. “We don’t charge for concerts, and, although we happily accept donations at the door, they don’t pay for the concert.”
Board president Richard Stahl, who said he has sung in choirs most of his life, pressed the point. “Although the singers are volunteers, people are surprised to find out that we pay union scale for professional musicians in the orchestra,” he explained. “So when we do a major concert with a 20-piece orchestra, the bill can be significant.”
Stahl said his biggest challenge as board president is to recruit singers. “Many of our singers are aging and have been with Caritas for 20 years. So we need to recruit new people. But we’re attracting busy people with competing priorities, and the chorale requires a fairly serious commitment. We work on a piece of music over a period of two months. However, R.L. makes rehearsals a lot of fun, and educational. We always learn something about the music, too, not just the notes!”
Linda Bergerson, the chorale’s executive director, was one of the group’s founding members. “It started when (then-music director) Dick Brown had a three-day choral boot camp in Challis,” she recalled. ”A lot of us had sung in the ‘Messiah’ at the Episcopal Church and we wanted to sing classical music that the church choir didn’t cover. We started with a small group singing Faure’s ‘Requiem,’ and we couldn’t afford an orchestra so Chip Mills was our accompanist. Dick played pick-up cello with the Boise Philharmonic and started bringing core musicians to play with us. It grew from there.”
The chorale went on three European tours, singing in ancient cathedrals and abbeys, often with local groups. These days, the group performs at venues such as Our Lady of the Snows Catholic Church in Ketchum and the auditorium at Wood River High School in Hailey. However, the group is also open to playing in other locales.
“In a community group such as Caritas, people are here because they love it,” said Rowsey. “We have so many longtime members and devoted supporters, we have a real sense of family. Everyone is welcome to join us. You don’t have to prove anything; you just have to want to sing.”
Concerts are always free. For details on the gala and upcoming concerts, see caritaschorale.org or call 208.726.4846. Rehearsals are every Monday at 6:30 p.m., in the basement of St. Thomas Episcopal Church. Everyone is welcome.