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Choral Singers Note Neither Fame Nor Fortune : They Move to a Different Hummer

December 01, 1985|GAIL POLEVOI | Times Staff Writer

Once a week, the dinner dishes stay in the sink. The files from the office remain on the desk. One night a week is rehearsal. And everything else can wait.

The rest of the week, they're teaching a class, pleading a case, chatting with a computer. But one night a week they sing. And singing, they say, is bliss.

They are choral singers. They gather in groups of 30 to 40 around the South Bay to train their voices in delicate 18th-Century melodies by Vivaldi or Bach, lilting Christmas carols in Latin or French, or Rodgers and Hammerstein's greatest hits.

Only a few get paid for their trouble. Most of them pay for the chance to sing.

Fame Unlikely

They don't get fame either. Vivaldi hasn't seen the Top 10 for at least 200 years and a "Star Search" tryout isn't likely for a group primly dressed in black and white, singing sweetly of angels on high.

But these singers are not concerned with the material world--at least, for one night a week.

On a wet Monday, they splash across the campus of El Camino College in Torrance to the music room, shed their coats and take their places on the risers. They greet each other gaily, but quickly--there's work to be done. The busy holiday season is near. Rehearsal for the Christmas concert begins right on time.

They are the Jane Hardester Singers--a group of 33 devoted musicians, ranging in age from early 20s to 50s. Several of them have sung in the chorus since it was founded seven years ago by Hardester, a music instructor at the college. This season Hardester is on sabbatical and David Thorsen, chairman of the music department at California State University, Fullerton, leads them through their paces:

"OK. We start mezzo forte. Altos, I really want to hear that crescendo."

Thorsen raises his hands for the downbeat and, in a glance, surveys his singers. They are sitting erect, music in hand, pencils wedged over their ears.

A nod to the accompanist at the grand piano, and Thorsen's hands take flight. Sopranos, altos, tenors, basses--in turn, they start to sing.

Another Group Warms Up

Several miles to the south, in a Rancho Palos Verdes park, the South Coast Choral Society is warming up, but director Ted Gardner is getting the workout. In his bright blue sweat shirt decorated with the group's logo, he waves his arms broadly like a swimmer stroking against the clock. Then he bends at the knees and pulls through the air like a vigorous cross-country skier.

Gardner's singers--there are 32 of them, from teen-agers to senior citizens--are used to his dramatic style and enjoy it. Gardner clearly enjoys it, too. He founded the ensemble five years ago and now divides his time between his choral duties and his property management firm.

"OK. Stand up, please," he directs the group. "We'll run through the whole thing. And please listen to each other!"

Tuesday night rehearsals are a long-established tradition for the singers of Los Cancioneros Master Chorale, by far the oldest choral group in the South Bay. Founded in 1948, the choir has seen 10 different directors over the years, but many of the singers have remained staunchly loyal, with stints of 20 years and more.

Wide Repertoire

The 41 members, most from their late 30s to 60s, are currently led by Lisa Mellor, a 32-year-old Ph.D. candidate and softball fanatic. The weekly practice session in Torrance High's music room moves through the musical ages like a fast pitch, from medieval carols to Irving Berlin's "White Christmas."

"On that last 'white,' " Mellor instructs them, "sing it white-colored. It's a real spacey sound."

To the MTV generation, choral singers may seem spacey, indeed. While most of the world is rocking to a very different drummer, why are these lawyers, teachers and engineers singing of pine cones and holly berries? And paying for the privilege, to boot?

Borrowing from Cole Porter, Norma Parker says simply: "It's the top." For Parker, who is president of the Hardester Singers, choral music is "a delicacy, like caviar."

It's a Challenge

"I could sing any kind of music," she explains, "but when I want to get challenged--when I'm musically starved--I sing choral music. A ballad can get you in the gut, but choral music does that as well as touch you intellectually."

John Felix, the newest tenor at Los Cancioneros, agrees. "It's music that makes you think. It taxes you and forces you to develop your technique. You have to increase your range, learn breath control and really know your part. You can't rely on somebody to do it for you."

In the Hardester choir, they call their art form "the ultimate team sport." Clearly, no egos need apply.

"You have to be aware which part is more important," says Janet Hook, a soprano in the Hardester Singers. "And you need to know when to back off so another part can be heard. You have to submerge yourself into the group and into the interpretation of the conductor."

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