For over three months, a local chorus has been transforming itself into a town of sailors and their wives on the coast of, say, Maine—or perhaps England—in a flexible time-period that alternates between the mid-19th and late 20th centuries.

What is this all about? For their annual Spring concerts, the Quinebaug Valley Singers—centered in Sturbridge but drawing their 55 members from all over south central Massachusetts and northeastern Connecticut—have chosen a program of songs from and about the Earth’s mighty oceans and the people who have made their living on them. Titled “Rough Seas, Safe Harbor,” the concerts will be presented at the St. Joachim Chapel (St. Anne/St. Patrick Parish, Fiskdale) on Saturday, May 21st at 7:30 p.m. and at the First Congregational Church of Monson on Sunday, May 22nd at 3 p.m.

Both concerts are free, with a freewill offering being collected on deck at intermission. Following QVS tradition, audience members will be invited to join the chorus after each concert in the ship’s galley for tasty refreshments (“a lot tastier than hardtack,” says Music Director Nym Cooke). Both venues are handicap-accessible. (Board the HMS QVS early to be sure of a seat!) Grants from the Local Cultural Councils of Sturbridge and Monson have helped make these concerts possible, and the chorus is grateful for that support.

The chorus needs the extra financial input, according to Nym Cooke, because this is one of their most ambitious programs ever. “We have a ‘Fo’c’s’le Band’ along on this voyage,” says Cooke—“six fabulously talented musicians who play fourteen instruments between them—and all of them must be paid something for their trouble.” The fo’c’s’le, or forecastle, was the part of the ship to the fore that contained the crew’s living quarters, and would be the natural place for an impromptu shipboard band to play.

QVS’s band includes two fiddles, two flutes, concertina, accordion, trombone, several guitars, bass, and percussion, as well as piano and church organ. Not all of these instruments play at the same time, and not all the musicians are available for both concerts—but they will add lively and stirring sounds and rhythms to the chorus’s strong voices.

“This is our most varied program ever in terms of vocal and instrumental textures,” says Cooke, who first came on board at QVS Music Director in 2002. “We have both accompanied and a cappella four-part choral pieces; a song for the women of the chorus by themselves; trios of solo voices; individual soloists singing a cappella or with their own accompaniment; homophonic hymns and polyphonic rounds; and four pieces where we invite the audience to join us in singing.” It’s also likely that the Fo’c’s’le Band will cut loose with a couple tunes on its own during intermission.

The songs range from the well-known (“What Shall We Do With the Drunken Sailor”) to the obscure (“Ocean,” a lively fuging tune written in the 1790s by Supply Belcher, known as “the Handel of Maine”); from the antique (“New Oysters,” a 16th-century street cry) to the recent (James Taylor and Jimmy Buffett’s haunting “Sugar Trade”); from the comical (“The Golden Vanity”) to the tragic (“The Last Hymn”). There should be plenty of great music for everyone. Make plans now to board the HMS QVS for one or both of its two sea voyages later this month!

Winter: QVS Favorites

Huffing and puffing, we finally caught up with QVS's energetic Music Director Nym Cooke, and he agreed to stand still just long enough to tell us about these concerts, before racing on.

"The program is the result of an online poll sent out to the entire chorus--something we also did for our Spring program last year. We posted a list of every single Christmas and holiday song we'd performed since I came on board with the chorus, sometime 'way back near the beginning of the millennium. The members voted for their favorite 20 pieces, and the program has been drawn from their votes. Though I tweaked the final selection a bit, everything you'll hear was among the top vote-getters--except the opening song 'Star in the East,' whose refrain ("Brightest and best of the sons of the morning...") titled the concert."

"I'm impressed by our members' good taste! The very most popular piece in the poll was Georg Frideric Handel's wonderful Messiah chorus, 'And the glory of the Lord,' which we sing very lightly and with quicksilver rapidity, perhaps the way a choir of angels might do it. Vote-getter number two was Peter Yarrow's stirring Hanukkah song 'Light one candle,' originally recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary. Third in popularity was Morten Lauridsen's haunting and unforgettable setting of 'O magnum mysterium,' which a select group of sixteen singers will present. Number four was the ever-popular 'African Noël,' with a Kenyan melody and our own Sarah Jo Burke (formerly of the Burke Family Singers--Google 'em) on flute. Fifth in the number of votes received was John Rutter's tender 'Christmas Lullaby'... And so it goes."

"Other highlights of the concert include 'Carol of the Bells,' 'Have yourself a merry little Christmas' (in a very jazzy arrangement), 'White Christmas' (the Festival Edition, with two keyboardists and chimes), Felix Mendelssohn's masterful chorus 'There shall a star come out of Jacob,' the African-American song 'O Mary' (this rocks, people!), a couple of highlights from our much-beloved concert of 'Celtic Noëls,' and lots more."

"Perhaps I should add that this 'edition' of QVS is the strongest since I came on board; we have many fine singers on every vocal part. We are going to sound TERRIFIC! Also, we'll be recording all this Christmas music in three sessions late next January. The result should be a memorable CD--the perfect Christmas gift to yourself, your family, or your friends." And with that, Cooke dashed away.