The semicircle of Choralis singers gather on Tuesdays – some in button-downs, some in jogging clothes, depending where they’ve come from – laughing and chatting before practice.
But at the musical task at hand, they transform. By day, they practice law on K Street, work at animal hospitals, sell real estate, and raise children. But in the evenings, they are, first and foremost, musicians.
“With a polymetric rhythm like this, you have to feel the eighth notes. Just trust yourself; mostly you’re right.” Gretchen Kuhrmann says one Tuesday, using her bare heel to emphatically punctuate the Donas, nobises and pacems that rise to fever pitch, making the linoleum-floored practice room feel like a huge, echoing space.
“Where do those notes come from?” a tenor asks, after singing a segment in an alto range. “You just have to pull them out of the air,” Kuhrmann says with a bit of a chuckle.
Leonard Bernstein wrote the piece they are rehearsing, for the opening of the Kennedy Center in 1971, and it is suffused with the country’s turbulent emotions at the time. Choralis will be joining other choirs in an “off-season” performance of Bernstein’s Mass at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts on Oct. 6.
The season is off to an evocative start – Choralis opened two weeks ago with “In Search of Peace,” commemorating the victims of 9/11 and expressing hope for a more peaceful future. The concert included “Shadow Tides,” a commissioned piece by local composer Gary Davison, as well as works like Samuel Barber’s Adagio and the “Dona Nobis Pacem” from Bach’s B-Minor Mass.
“The audience really connected with this one,” Kuhrmann said. “I got more comments on that concert than anything we’ve done in 12 years.”
In addition to the 100-person Choralis, Kuhrmann presides over Echos, a 24-voice chamber group whose members also sing in Choralis. Three children’s choirs span grades 3-12; the fourth is an elite treble choir. These six linked groups often sing together.
“We also have scholarships available to 12 high school students from choruses around town,” said alto and public relations chair Cathy Valdiviez Baumbusch. “Many go on to music careers” after graduating from such schools as Oberlin, Eastman and Julliard.
Choralis performs a varied repertoire. In November, Echos will perform Mozart, Haydn and Bach; planned spring concerts for the choirs will include some Motown, Beatles and even choreographed numbers in the style of Glee, as well as traditional fare.
“We’re trying to cover the market,” Kuhrmann said. “We’re writing our own script as we go – and our patrons were pleasantly surprised by our Glee-influenced concert last season.”
Choralis also performs work by new composers who write in a traditional style. The season will close in June with a concert featuring renowned British composer Bob Chilcott’s “Requiem,” which Echos premiered last year.
“[Chilcott] writes accessible, beautiful music. … Audiences enjoy listening to it,” said Kuhrmann.
“We started the season with Davison’s ‘Shadow Tides,’ and will be ending it with ‘Requiem’ … so, we’re bookending our season with original work by modern composers. That’s really exciting for us,” said board chair and Echos singer Marcy Owens Test. “In this down economy, we’ve done really well – our donors have been very generous. It’s because of this that we can take on this some really interesting, aggressive programming.”
The choirs began performing this season in September and will continue until June, with a concert every month except for January.
In the transient Washington, D.C. metro area, only about a dozen remain from the original 45-person choir Kuhrmann started in 2000.
“But as big as we are, we still have this sense of family,” Kuhrmann said. “And we’re lucky – our musical resources are almost limitless here. Nowhere else but L.A. has this musical a community to draw from.”
Driven by talent, practice and the one-dollar fine if they are late, these men and women devote their Tuesday nights to practice, and creating something larger than themselves, something audiences can enjoy.
“One of my missions is to keep choral music alive,” Kuhrmann said.
For a full listing of concert dates, times and ticket prices, visit choralis.org.