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New name, expanded repertoire give Valley Chorale fresh musical energy

Imagine investing the work required to sing W.A. Mozart’s “Requiem” for audiences, only to discover that two other local ensembles will be presenting that masterwork the very same weekend.

Now picture the same performers singing confidently in Swahili and Greek, mastering the rhythms of jazz and watching audiences smile at the opening bars of pieces by songwriters Paul McCartney and Christine McVie.

The Valley Chorale, which will bring its “Wishing on a Song” concert to Staunton’s Emmanuel Episcopal Church on Friday evening, likes to share how a combination of traditional grounding and contemporary verve can energize singers and audiences alike. The singers’ spring concert program reveals many different facets of hope by exploring themes of home, compassion, spirituality and love, punctuated at times by the rhythms of the Fauquier County High School Percussion Band.

David Freese, president of the Valley Chorale, called artistic director Samantha Isely “a breath of really fresh air.”

“Choirs tend to get into a comfort zone. She has gotten us way out of our comfort zone, especially with the jazz,” Freese said. “We needed to have a niche, a specialty, that’s different. We’ve done African music; we’ve done Latin music. We’re just trying to keep it interesting.”

Interesting, indeed. “I gave them 19 different choral arrangements to learn” for this concert season, Isely said.

Friday’s concert will begin with more standard choral selections, including a J.S. Bach fugue and the folk classic “Oh Shenandoah.”

“We’ve got a lot of good traditional choral music in the first half,” Isely said.

After a brief intermission, McCartney’s “Little Willow,” which the former Beatle wrote to offer encouragement to a recently widowed friend, and Fleetwood Mac veteran McVie’s soaring “Songbird” will explore different aspects of hope.

Several other pieces on the program offer sheer fun.

“The second half opens with a rendition of ‘Route 66,’” Isely said.

Audience members also will want to keep an ear out for the Chords’ 1954 classic “Sh-Boom (Life Could Be a Dream),” which is considered the first doo-wop hit to reach the top 10 on the pop charts. Isely said the chorale’s tenors and basses are in particularly fine form in this song.

The upbeat spiritual “Unclouded Day” is likely to resonate as strongly with listeners as it has with the singers, she said.

“There’s a unifying theme: the concept of hope and how that can manifest,” Isely said. “I’ve always gravitated toward music that feels inspirational and that can keep you going, like there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”

“The overarching theme is the things we hope for that can sustain us in our lives,” Freese said.

Sometimes, hope and hard work are the right tools to transform something you love into a better something that can be greater than the sum of its parts.

The chorale, formed in 1962 as the Front Royal Oratorio Society, sang primarily choral masterworks and classical fare for decades. In 2019, the ensemble changed its name, its repertoire and its outlook.

“Now we do a much more diverse repertoire,” Freese said. “We sing works by women composers; we sing in different languages.”

Members range in age from teens to mid-70s, with several singers coming from Shenandoah Conservatory. That’s where Isely, an Arizona native, is completing her work on a master’s degree.

“I joined the Valley Chorale as a singer in the beginning of fall 2022,” Isely said. “When I had the opportunity to take over as director, I wanted to give [the singers] the opportunity to expand and see more diversity.”

“One thing that really sets us apart is we are a family and a community of singers,” Freese said, adding that the singers happily check in with each other before rehearsals begin and nurture a supportive environment that helps each singer reach for his or her best.

“You really want to stick the landing, and you want it to land in people’s hearts,” Freese said.

“I think that’s honestly where the Valley Chorale thrives the most,” Isely said, adding that watching singers leave the stresses of the day at the door when they show up for Monday evening rehearsals is a delight. “It’s beautiful to see these friendships form.”

There’s no need to schedule a sitter to attend this event. The Valley Chorale concert welcomes its youngest listeners, whether or not they can sit still.

“Bring the babies; bring the kids,” Freese said. “We’ve actually had children crawling in the aisles during the Christmas concert.”

The singers also will present “Wishing on a Song” at 3 p.m. Saturday at the Bank Barn at Belle Grove Plantation in Middletown and at 3 p.m. Sunday at First Baptist Church in Front Royal.


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