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MUSIC : A Choir With Class : Antelope Valley Master Chorale finds that affiliating with a college is one way to get by in tough financial times.


Now is not a great time to be a young arts organization. But the Antelope Valley Master Chorale, which debuted last year, is singing of bless ings.

Blessing and honor, glory and power

be unto Him that sitteth upon the throne

and unto the Lamb for ever and ever.


The text comes from the very end of Handel's "Messiah," the masterpiece that practically no chorus can escape at this time of year. But this Lancaster-based, barely year-old chorale, while not of professional caliber, sings it at rehearsal with great heart and enthusiasm. Public performances of the work, accompanied by an orchestra playing period instruments, will be on Saturday and Sunday at the Lancaster Performing Arts Center.

The soloists, hired for these concerts, will be soprano Deborah Mayhan, mezzo-soprano Alis Clausen, tenor Beau Palmer and bass Martin Wright.

The 96-member chorale was founded by David Newby, who rehearsed the group since mid-August in preparation of this program. He led a recent rehearsal in a music classroom at Antelope Valley College.

"You're still not getting 'blessing' right," he told them at one point. "To make it clear you have to pretend you are Italian and say it 'bleh-sing.' "

The singers laughed and tried it his way. It was one of the few moments of levity in what was an otherwise mostly intense, nonstop rehearsal. The members of this group take these three-hour, once-a-week rehearsals with great seriousness.

"This is an important time for me," said alto Diana Lopez, 43, of Lancaster during the one break the chorus gets in the evening. "I'm a physical therapist, and this is my own therapy. It's a way to release energy. Everyone needs that."

"I work my fanny off at these rehearsals," said soprano Genevieve Kneisel, 75, of Palmdale, who had rehearsed the "Messiah" so much on her own that she rarely needed to look down at her score. "But I love it."

"This is what I want to do with the rest of my life," said tenor Chris Siegel, 17, of California City, who goes to high school. "I want to go to Broadway."

Whatever their reasons for being a part of the chorus, they all had one thing in common: All were paying for the privilege. The secret behind starting a group like this at a time of scarce funds was to make it a college class.

"When I came to teach at the college in 1989 there was only a small chorus here," said Newby, who formerly taught music at Indiana University in South Bend and was director of the summer opera program there. "And that chorus had very limited opportunities to sing in concert with an orchestra."

Antelope Valley College had an orchestra, but it already had its own full schedule of performances. Newby wanted to be able to go outside the school to hire professional musicians to accompany a chorus as needed. And that takes money.

"There was no funding for anything like that," he said. "If we were going to get money for an orchestra, we'd have to raise it."

To that end, he founded the Antelope Valley Master Chorale as a kind of hybrid--the group was part of the college, but it also had its own outside volunteer board of directors. Those who wanted to be a part of the chorus paid tuition of $12 for two units of credit, just as if it was any class. The college, in turn, provided rehearsal space and other forms of support, such as paying the fee for the use of the performing arts center.

The board, meanwhile, sought donations, held fund-raisers and sold advertising space in concert programs to raise additional money for hiring musicians and other extras. It enabled the singers to be accompanied by members of the L. A. Baroque Orchestra for the chorale's debut concert in December of last year in honor of the 200th anniversary of Mozart's death.

"The chorus sang Mozart from memory," Newby said with pride. "We were a sellout."

Through that concert and other fund drives enough money was raised to also hire a general manager and pay a stipend to the leaders of the six chorus sections--from bass on up to soprano.

Earlier this year, also at the Performing Arts Center, the chorale gave a mostly Russian-language concert that was also a box-office success.

Then came a financial misstep. For its first concert of the 1992-93 subscription season the chorale sponsored the appearance in October by the critically heralded, Los Angeles-based ensemble the Cambridge Singers. This small group sang a program in honor the 500th anniversary of Columbus' voyage, with selections by Spanish and North American composers.

"It was a box-office disaster," said Nancy Linlors, the group's general manager. "People up here were just getting to know us, and one of the first things we do is offer them a group they have never heard of, singing music that is not well-known. It just didn't work."

The rest of the season, following the "Messiah," seems safer, with the chorale singing concert suites from "West Side Story" and "Porgy and Bess" in March and then Brahms' "Ein deutsches Requiem" in June.

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