Pro Cantare chorus celebrates 35 years

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Robert Friedman
More than 100 singers of all ages and backgrounds comprise the 35-year-old Pro Cantare chorus. Here they perform Handel’s Messiah during one the group’s quarterly concerts.
Photo courtesy of Pro Cantare

From NASA scientists to high flying corporate executives, and from people in their 70s to teenagers, more than 100 Howard County residents of all ages and backgrounds meet weekly to raise their voices together in song.

The highly acclaimed Columbia singing group called Pro Cantare was founded 35 years ago by Howard County resident Frances Motyca Dawson, who has directed it ever since. Pro Cantare is Italian for “in behalf of singing.” Dawson said the name came from suggestions, “and it appealed to me.”

The professionally trained chorus of volunteer singers has performed in and around the area, including at the Kennedy Center and the National Cathedral.

It is generally accompanied by professional musicians hired for the occasion, but has also performed with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, such as at its debut in 1977, when the chorus and orchestra performed Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy together.

Pro Cantare performs a wide variety of works, from the choral classics to lesser known pieces, commissions and premieres. Its repertoire includes operas, oratorios, spirituals, show tunes, tradition ethnic numbers, and jazz compositions by Duke Ellington and Dave Brubeck.

“We perform the choral literature, from the classics to Broadway,” said Dawson, who directs the singers, the soloists and accompanists at the group’s four annual concerts plus one or two performances by its smaller chamber chorus. Singers from the National and Metropolitan Opera companies have appeared as soloists with Pro Cantare.

Dawson, who holds a master’s degree in music from the prestigious Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, previously founded and directed the Louisville Choral Arts Society. She has been cited with a host of honors, including induction into the Howard County Women’s Hall of Fame, and a Howie award given by the Howard County Arts Council for lifetime contributions to the community’s arts scene.

 Operating the nonprofit Pro Cantare is full-time work, Dawson said. And, as with many nonprofit arts organizations, Pro Cantare is “in a struggle to keep going” in these less-than-booming economic times. Ticket sales cover less than 20 percent of expenses, so the group relies on corporate and individual donations and an endowment fund for the balance. Dawson says she will stick with the chorale through thin and, perhaps, thinner times, “because I’m devoted to it.”

Quarterly concerts

The 110- to 120-member chorale rehearses every Tuesday during the weeks before its seasonal concerts. The Messiah is performed annually by the group, either around Christmas or Easter, while another performance usually includes an evening of ethnic music.

Dawson, of Czech heritage, said: “It became my mission to do some concerts of Czech composers,” many of whom had been underrepresented in concert halls during Iron Curtain days. Thus, Dawson brought to stateside audiences the music of Dvorak, Smetana and Janacek, among many other composers from her grandfather’s homeland.

The popularity of the all-Czech nights led to concerts devoted to classical song fests from composers of Polish, Hungarian, Swedish, Irish, Jewish, Latin American and African-American origin.

Almost all the chorale members are Howard County residents, with perhaps 10 or 12 from surrounding communities, Dawson said. Two or three original members of the group are still performing.

Between five and 10 singers are typically replaced each year. Several of the “dropouts” have been women who left to have babies, then returned after a few years to resume their participation.

“One never knows who will be part of the group until they walk through the door” for a tryout, said Dawson. “For some individuals it’s a way to leave behind their daytime jobs. For some it’s an other-worldly, spiritual, emotional experience.”

A healthy pursuit

Dawson said that several recent articles in scientific magazines have noted how singing in a chorus enhances a person’s physical and emotional health.

“It has to do with being part of something larger than yourself,” Dawson said. “Some in Pro Cantare call our Tuesdays ‘therapy night.’ It gives you a sense of community. You are taking part in a musical art form.”

Pro Cantare undoubtedly also works its inspirational powers on its devoted director. “I work very hard to try to mold a sound, to teach healthy musical habits, in breathing, vowel formation,” she said. “To get that quality of sound, one must put in a lot of rehearsal time.”

Those lucky enough to have been at the Columbia Mall on Feb. 11 heard the chorale celebrating its 35th anniversary with a fund-raising Singathon, filling the mall for surprised shoppers with the sounds of Aaron Copeland, Andrew Lloyd Weber, and others.

On May 5 at 8 p.m., Pro Cantare with be appearing at Columbia’s Jim Rouse Theatre, 5460 Trumpeter Rd., along with the Eric Mintet Quartet in a Dave Brubeck program. The quartet will play such Brubeck jazz classics as “Take Five,” while Pro Cantare will perform the Brubeck chorale work, “To Hope! A Celebration,” described as a mass in the revised Roman ritual.

Tickets purchased in advance are $20 for adults, $18 for seniors and students. Admission at the door will cost $22 and $20, respectively. For further information, visit www.procantare.org or call (410) 799-9321.

Pro Cantare holds auditions in the summer preceding each season and by appointment throughout the year. Singers with previous choral experience and some sight reading skills and tonal memory are encouraged to audition. To schedule an audition, call (410) 730-8549.