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Fort Worth choral group Schola Cantorum fine-tunes its focus

The North Texas choral ensemble long known as Schola Cantorum of Texas is starting its 54th season with something different: a new name.

It will be the Fort Worth Chorale of Schola Cantorum of Texas, offering up a wide range of vocal music with little or no instrumental accompaniment in season-opening performances in Southlake on Oct. 15 and in Fort Worth on Oct. 16.

“We still use Schola Cantorum, but it has become an umbrella [term],” says Jerry McCoy, the vocal group’s conductor. “It encompasses the Fort Worth Chorale [the large, main choir] and the chamber choir [a smaller group pulled from the large chorus], which is now called the Fort Worth Chamber Choir, under the auspices of Schola Cantorum of Texas.”

McCoy says the name change was part of an effort to make the choir a more visible player in the Fort Worth fine-arts scene.

“We want to be one of the high-profile, long-lasting, core performing organizations in Fort Worth,” says McCoy, who is only the fourth conductor in the organization’s history.

The attainment of that goal has been hampered by the fact that, historically, Schola moved around a good bit, presenting its performances in churches and other venues scattered across the Metroplex.

The whole point was to be in the heart of Fort Worth. So that led us to this rebranding, which we see as forwarding our goal to be the vocal heart of Fort Worth.

Jerry McCoy, conductor

But this season, the main choir will present all three of its concerts at University Christian Church (with stops in Southlake and Dallas), and the chamber choir will perform at the Kimbell Art Museum in February.

“The whole point was to be in the heart of Fort Worth,” McCoy says. “So that led us to this rebranding, which we see as forwarding our goal to be the vocal heart of Fort Worth. That’s what we’re aiming to be.”

For those not familiar with the chorale, do not let the church venues fool you. Its programs sometimes include sacred music, but that is just one of the styles offered. McCoy and company fear no composer, piece or time period when weaving their a cappella magic.

Many languages

This season’s opening concert, “The World Is Home,” is a good example of the eclectic personality of a typical chorale concert. It includes Dvorak’s delightful Moravian Duets, three Chinese folk songs (which will be sung in Chinese) and a setting of Scottish songs by former chorale singer Till Meyn, who is on the faculty of TCU’s music school.

“We do it in steps,” explains Karla Martin, a mezzo-soprano and one of about 65 singers in the chorale. “Dr. McCoy always starts us with the music, and then we work on the language. And we have so many [language] experts within the choir.”

That’s a fortunate thing, considering that the choir seems to have sung in every known language from Europe, Asia and the Americas, along with pieces in Latin and Hebrew.

This multilingualism is partially the byproduct of its globe-trotting conductor who, in addition to serving as the director of choral studies at the University of North Texas for 15 years before retiring last August, has picked up and performed a lot of interesting works in faraway places.

“I did this piece in Taiwan,” says McCoy nonchalantly, referring to the Chinese folk songs arranged for chorus by Chen Yi.

But performing in unfamiliar languages does carry a price. McCoy says that it can take twice as long to prepare a foreign-language work.

The gem in the tiara for me is the dress rehearsal, when you hear how it is going to sound in the hall. It brings chills to me almost every time we start singing.

Karla Martin, mezzo-soprano

The Dvorak duets on the first concert, for example, will be done in English rather than in Czech because they were a late addition to the program, and there was not enough time to learn them in their native tongue.

“I breathed a sigh of relief about that,” Martin says, although the 18-year veteran of the ensemble has sung in Czech and countless other languages in her years of singing service.

From many voices

Martin, a former business manager for AT&T who is now a full-time homemaker, says the chorale’s singers come from all walks of life, listing stockbrokers, financial planners, engineers and at least one waitress among her colleagues.

But there is one profession that is especially common in the group: high school choral teachers.

“It amazes me that so many of them are willing to be at their jobs, preparing classes at 6 a.m., and work all day before coming to our rehearsals at night,” McCoy says.

He says the dedication of the chorale’s unpaid singers goes beyond long hours and long drives. “They pay a fee and buy their own music to be in this choir,” says McCoy, adding that new members may also need to buy a new dress or tuxedo for performances.

Because the roster of the chorale changes from year to year, one of McCoy’s duties is to craft a particular, unified sound from each group of singers, whose numbers vary in performance, depending on the needs of the program.

“We rebuild our tone and our tuning concepts each new season,” he says, explaining that a choir is somewhat like a musical instrument — except that a group of voices has be tuned in a different way. “It is not a tempered tuning, like a piano.”

Martin describes the chorale’s rehearsal-to-performance arc, saying: “We start with a good sound and end with a great sound. The gem in the tiara for me is the dress rehearsal, when you hear how it is going to sound in the hall. It brings chills to me almost every time we start singing.”

She has no complaints about the time, effort and money the chorale singers put forth to be part of the ensemble.

“The one common factor over the years,” she says, “is the sense of joy that comes with it.”

  • 7:30 p.m. Oct. 15 at White’s Chapel United Methodist Church, Southlake
  • 3:30 p.m. Oct. 16 at University Christian Church, Fort Worth
  • $5-$20
  • 817-485-2500; http://fortworthchorale.org

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