Comfort ye, comfort ye, thy People.—'The Messiah'With a baton he has used to direct choruses in the Czech Republic, China and at St. Peter's Church at The Vatican, Timothy McDonnell will connect the present with the past for the new Symphonic Chorale of Southwest Florida vocal debut Dec. 16. The chorale's first public will be a 90-voice performance of Handel's "Messiah."
McDonnell, 38, who also serves as Ave Maria University's music department chair, considers the oratorio "a chestnut that has its place in every choral culture around the world."
That special Mollard baton that was with him at The Vatican?
"I found it 10 years ago! I was in a practice room at the University of South Carolina. I had dropped a pencil that rolled underneath the organ's pedals, and when I reached under there, I pulled out this baton. I tried to find the owner, but nobody came forward. It's been my favorite ever since."
The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light.
The volunteer chorale members began rehearsing in September, and McDonnell immediately impressed the group, according to chorale vice president Joanne Paulino.
"We think he's just wonderful!" she declared. "He's such a treasure for our group, and I think he is going to really take us places."
They're happy to be together again after a difficult separation from the Southwest Florida Symphony Orchestra, where the group performed as the Southwest Florida Symphony Chorale. That's behind them now, and the orchestra will join them onstage at the Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall in Fort Myers to perform Handel's holiday classic.
According to chorale president Alan Wioskowski, a retired public radio announcer from New York, "we're in a nice situation with the symphony at this point, working together and cooperating together. This is our gift to the community."
"What really impresses me," McDonnell adds, "is that they have put together an organization in a matter of months, getting the nonprofit status, writing bylaws ... all between April and October. That's an Olympian accomplishment."
Lift up thy voice with strength.
At a recent rehearsal, McDonnell conducted with as much delight as Charlie Chaplin pulling a daisy bouquet out of his buttonhole. Chorale members arrived early with their scores, and several who had colds had come anyway, sitting in the back to write notes as McDonnell perfected the group's diction, rhythm and phrasing.
"It's not pur-if-fy ... it's pud-i-fy," he said. "You must be thinking about the musical narrative all the time. I'm giving you mental Post-it notes."
"The vowels are the soul of singing," McDonnell explained. "The consonants are there to interrupt the vowels. We work on how the singers are breathing, and how much air do I need to get through this passage?
"When each individual takes ownership of the sound, and thinks about the sound before they create it, it just pops to life! That's where you find the joy in group music-making."
Chorale singers range in age from 17 to 80, with five high school students in the group. Gateway Charter High School junior Alyson Rezendes, of Fort Myers, auditioned with her music teacher, and both were accepted.
"I love it because people are way more serious here than in high school," Rezendes said.
Singers, many of whom are retired, include doctors, lawyers, waitresses, insurance sales people, homemakers, real estate agents and librarians.
The performance will feature four notable soloists including soprano Jennifer Paulino, of San Francisco, who is the daughter of the chorale's vice president. Local singers are invited to come onstage on Dec. 18 to join the chorale for the Hallelujah Chorus.
Those interested are required to attend a 2:30 p.m. rehearsal with the orchestra that day at Barbara B. Mann and to purchase a ticket for the performance.
Their sound is gone out into all lands, and their words unto the ends of the world ...
McDonnell came to Florida from his position as music director at the Pontifical North American College of Rome, with the credentials to be a choral elitist.
Instead, the opposite is true. He is fervent about community chorus, citing a 2009 study by the music advancement organization Chorus America reporting that 40 million Americans are involved in community choral singing — more than any time in our history.
"While the experience of working with professional musicians is very special, without a doubt," he reflected, "ordinary people can produce extraordinary art. In the chorus, we have every age from students to retirees. They're living in a very busy world. But they would not miss their Monday night rehearsal for anything.
"In the process, they are giving their community something very beautiful. We find very little of that in our world."
McDonnell has scheduled midseason auditions for new singers on Jan. 9 at Canterbury School in South Fort Myers, where the chorale practices at 7 p.m. each Monday. The chorale especially needs male singers for tenor and bass parts.
"We are very open to people who have never done anything like this," McDonnell said. "We have singers of varying levels. People trust us with their voices, and they get better. We want to hear from everyone in Southwest Florida who loves to sing."