MADISON--Church choirs have been around forever—a Sunday morning fixture in many churches. Popular perception is that a choir rehearses once or twice a week during most of the year, and steps it up a bit for the holidays. Thumbing through the want ads for choir director will bring up a number of part-time jobs.
That’s not how it works for Anne Matlack, D.M.A., full-time organist and choirmaster at Grace Episcopal Church in Madison. She is also the artistic director of the Harmonium Choral Society, which is a part-time job. Between the two, there is always something coming up, and she works more than full time. Her current project is a Halloween Concert to be performed on Oct. 30.
Matlack began her career at Grace 20 years ago, an anniversary that will be formally celebrated at the church in November. When she was hired, she learned she would replace a woman who had been there for 50 years, which was intimidating. “It’s a challenge to follow someone who has been with a choir for so long.”
A lot has changed in the last 20 years, but the heart is still the same; Grace has always had a strong choir. “When I came, they wanted to get more kids and young families,” Matlack remembers. “It was an older congregation, and I had a four-year-old; I felt like the only person with a preschooler. We added babysitting, though I was the only one using it, but then I was able to tell people that we offered it and more and more young people started coming.” Now the church is full of young families.
Matlack works a full six-day week, including all day Sunday. Of course, she does have two jobs, but the majority of her week is at Grace Church, where she plays the organ for most of the services, and manages a chorus of around 100 members who are divided into multiple groups. She has the adult choir, School Choir I and School Choir II, and an all-male youth choir called the Gargoyles.
“Sometimes adults sing alone, but all groups sing both separately and together depending on the music and needs,” she explains. That requires figuring out how to include third and fourth graders in Handel’s Messiah or a piece from Mozart, along with the older youth choirs and the adults.
Kids do real music in Matlack’s choirs—nothing is dumbed down. “Some music is difficult and hard to rehearse,” said Matlack, “or words are harder and so the younger singers might not be included,” but that’s usually not true of the whole piece, just sections.
The organization of so many people and age groups is difficult, and planning how to include everyone in classical music programs is a big job. “It’s complicated,” Matlack admits, “but I don’t see the point of not having everyone sing together.” It’s one of the experiences from her own years in a choir that she appreciated.
Matlack’s path to her career began when she was in the third grade and joined the choir at her church in Philadelphia. “We sang Bach and Britten as we do here. We were really dedicated,” she recalls. “My second year in choir, when I was in the fourth grade, we got a new choir director who was only 22 years old, and we were very naughty to him.” Matlack and several of her friends would play tricks on him, like backwards day when they would do exactly opposite to whatever he said. “He was on to us right away,” she said, and he would leave them sitting when the others were singing. They changed their behavior pretty quickly. The young director gave children real music and solos, and she thinks that’s a lot of what kept their interest.
In order to make order out of what could be chaos, Matlack mixes the experienced kids with the inexperienced, and older with younger. “Third and fourth graders are interspersed with novices,” she said, “and their job is to get to their own page, then check to make sure the kids in their charge are on the right page. It’s an Anglican tradition to have someone act as a head boy, such as what you see in the Harry Potter movies. That’s not a lesson I see kids getting in a lot of places.”
Some of Matlack’s singers begin in the third grade, and stay until they graduate from high school, returning from college to sing with her choir at the Christmas Eve midnight service, a service that actually begins at 10 p.m. “It means we’re singing Silent Night at midnight, which is enough at midnight for most,” she said, so people can enjoy the Mass without being out until the wee hours of the morning.
No one auditions for any of the choirs; anyone who wants to join can. They don’t even need to belong to the church. And what if someone really can’t sing? “I don’t know,” Matlack said. “That’s never happened.”
One of the most popular concerts Grace does is the bi-annual Halloween Concert, which was instituted by Matlack in 1992. “I always wanted to do a Halloween concert. We had one every year when I went to Yale. The kids love it, and they always ask why we can’t do it every year,” Matlack said. “But they would get bored with it if we did, and so would I.”
On the off years, the choirs sing in an All Saints concert.
The Halloween Concert has grown in the years since it began; it is now a huge production involving all of the singers, as well as musical guests. “It was simpler back then,” she said. “We did songs about animals, and “Lover’s Ghost” by Vaughan Williams, then we started adding things. This year we’re doing Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” and one year I had a fabulous fiddle player and we did “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” I once got someone to do “The Werewolves of London.”
While many churches shy away from the celebration of Halloween, the rector at Grace doesn’t. “I know there are some people who talk about the forces of evil,” said the Rev. Lauren Ackland. “I say if you’re laughing at the forces of evil, they have no power. We’re the ones who give it power; it doesn’t have a power of its own. And the musicality of the Halloween Concert, the quality of the music is just excellent!. They sing beautifully and take that part of it seriously, and if Anne throws a spider up in the air and everyone shrieks, that’s just fun.”
In fact, Matlack does throw a spider in the air during a performance of “Miss Muffet,” which is played in the style of Handel.
Matlack always wanted to be a classical musician, and she went to the Settlement School in Philadelphia for training. When she was in high school, her teacher suggested she learn the organ as a way to pay her way through college.
While a student at Yale University, she sang in the chapel choir and decided then that she wanted to do what the choir director did, so she decided she should renew her interest in the organ. “I was never an organ major,” she said, “but now it’s my bread and butter.”
She went to graduate school at the College Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati and received both Master of Music and Doctorate of Musical Arts degrees.
Matlack’s wishes came true, and she is very happy with the career path she chose. She has gotten involved in a number of other projects, such as a compline service held on a Wednesday night once a month for kids. There’s small chapel in the basement of the church where the service is held. It’s an opportunity for kids to go to service with their parents.
She also sends a lot of kids to Royal School of Church Music camp in Wilkes-Barre Pennsylvania for a week. “These kids really make friends that they keep their whole lives. They rehearse all morning, then have a break, then rehearse in the afternoon and sing Evensong. Last summer, we gave a Harry Potter theme to the camp. It was so much fun.”
And to fill in the gap of any free time she might have, Matlack works with Neighborhood House in Morristown, an afterschool program for people in primarily urban low-income families whose kids would otherwise go home to an empty house.
“Monday is my day off, and I’m very sacred about it,” she said. “I go to the supermarket, pick up my daughter from school, clean the house, read a book. The rest of the week I start after breakfast and go, so I really make the most of that one day.”
For details on the concert, go to http://thealternativepress.com/articles/bi-annual-holloween-concert-at-grace-church