By Lillien Waller
Do you remember the unnerving quiet of the early days of the pandemic? Aside from a few community-organized primal screams and cow-bell clangs to thank essential workers, a hush fell on the world as we all skittered into lockdown. Live vocal performance was an early, obvious cut. It was often deeply moving to see and hear singers adapt, performing via Zoom and social media, perhaps even an aria from a balcony. Yet, it wasn’t quite the same. We couldn’t gather in auditoriums or music halls. The few live performances executed in the first year took place in largely empty rooms or outside, almost always behind masks. But when voices rise together, making a piece of music written 400 or just twenty years ago feel relevant right now, there is nothing quite like the experience—for singers and audiences alike.
“Singing was very challenging during the pandemic,” recalls mathematics and economics teacher Rob Sherry P’25, a faculty member of Chorale for many years and Chorus since coming to Commonwealth in 2000. “At times, we practiced over Zoom, which was very difficult. We then sang outside in the back alley, even in the winter. It was hard to hear the other parts. We are finally back to normal. But I think that many musically inclined students moved towards instrumental music rather than voice. The orchestra is quite full, but Chorus is still small and working on rebuilding. I am confident that this will happen with time.”
Prior to the pandemic, Commonwealth’s Chorus, a performing arts course as well as a choir, traditionally welcomed thirty to forty student and faculty voices. Chorale, a more intimate auditioned ensemble, welcomed twelve to fifteen students. As of spring 2023, Chorus includes eight students and five faculty, and Chorale has four students. While the numbers for both groups have diminished significantly—due not only to the pandemic but also to students graduating and other factors— the quality of performance and the depth of student experience have not. And if the roster of Chorus and Chorale alumni/ae are any indication, the vocal program continues to serve as a training ground for world-class performers.
“What happened with Chorale is that there’s a student base who have been singing for the last couple of years,” says Director of Music David Hodgkins P’11. “We have two sopranos, an alto, and a bass, and I have been singing tenor. The piano accompanist, Valerie Becker, who has been great through all this, was willing to sing as well, so she has been singing alto. It’s not necessarily a bad thing that I’ve been singing, but that’s not why I’m there.
“What has been interesting, though, is that, despite the smaller number of singers, the level of accomplishment and refinement has not diminished. The quality of the performances has been very moving.”
What is most remarkable about Commonwealth’s vocal program during this period is that its repertoire has remained thoughtful, demanding, and wide-ranging. The pandemic brought with it a number of parallel concerns, particularly in the first year, including civil unrest and social questions around race and racism, equity and fairness, immigration and belonging. David, who has led the Commonwealth music program for more than thirty years and is the artistic director of award-winning adult choruses Coro Allegro in Boston and The New England Classical Singers in Andover, points out that this historical moment has been, in many ways, a rare opportunity to expand and re-imagine what the school’s Chorus and Chorale are capable of.
“I feel as if I know enough repertoire to change things around and make them work,” he notes. “There are many different situations for which you program; you just have to be smart about how you program. [The pandemic] was also an opportunity to explore different kinds of repertoire. Art can be a real motivating force for change. So, my programming has always had an ear towards diversity. I never called it ‘diversity;’ I just called it ‘interesting programming.’” In December 2022, Chorale performed “Magnificat Secundi Toni,” a multi-movement, a cappella work by sixteenth-century Spanish composer Tomás Luis de Victoria. In the spring of 2023, they performed a number of contemporary pieces, Debussy’s “Trois Chansons” in French, “Border” by Rich Campbell, and “Come Home” by Peter Eldridge, whose lyrics resonate deeply with the present historical moment. “Somehow we were able to make the key structures work,” Hodgkins says, “and we did it without breaks in between the pieces.”
It turned out to be pretty much love at first sight—sound? I couldn’t believe how much fun it was. There’s just something incredibly satisfying about singing with other people, plus it was intellectually demanding and brought me into contact with an entire spectrum of great music that I had never known existed.
Soprano Dava Sitkoff ’24, who joined Chorus sophomore year and Chorale this school year, speaks poetically about “O Magnum Mysterium,” also by Victoria, and the experience of learning to perform it. “What a beautiful piece. It was the first piece I learned coming into Chorale, which was an intimidating experience on its own. I had heard Chorale sing Renaissance music before and was really mystified by it,” Dava says, noting that the size of Chorale did not lessen the power of the music. “I mean, it’s this tiny little group that the website says ‘all breathe together.’ But I think that genuinely rings true. When Chorale is working together properly, ‘ethereal’ is the only word to describe it. And the first time that I experienced that was in ‘O Magnum Mysterium.’ The piece begins with a single note, and everybody is singing that note at the same time. It was a moment when I felt that, being one of only two sopranos—neither of whom had sung this before—it was worth it. This is why we’re doing this, for this really cool moment.”
Like many students in Chorus and Chorale, bass Alex Choi ’23 liked singing before arriving at Commonwealth but didn’t necessarily have a lot of opportunities to do it, especially as his middle school was quite small. He also remembers the pre-pandemic Chorus, but for him, the numbers are the only significant change. He does recall, however, one of his favorite pieces, Cole Porter’s “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye,” which the Chorus performed in 2022 for graduation. “It’s a really, really beautiful song. I’m assuming what Mr. Hodgkins gave us was the original arrangement. I was half-familiar with the tune because I had heard Ella Fitzgerald’s version, which is jazzier without the four-part harmony. But the song itself is a really good mix of being fun to sing and having a nice sound,” says Alex, who, earlier this year, was selected from among hundreds of student singers for the 69th Annual Massachusetts All-State Concert at
Boston Symphony Hall. He observes that each song in the Chorus repertoire isn’t just about the song. It takes time and no small amount of trust. “Singing in choruses is a process of refinement. You don’t walk in, nail it, and then leave,” he explains. “Even if you know the music by heart, you still have to work with the other people in the room. You have to blend with the other people. You have to get cues from other people. You’re not going to know everything until you’re in that room and you’ve been working for a while.
“When it comes to concerts at Commonwealth, maybe a week before we perform, I always find myself thinking, ‘This is going to be awful. No one’s together. There are parts we keep messing up. How is this going to turn out right?’” he says, laughing. “But then, you know, you get past the nerves and the awkwardness and you always end up with something that you weren’t expecting. You end up with something good.”
Tenor Charlie Zhong ’25, who is also a member of Orchestra, was already an accomplished pianist when he arrived at Commonwealth in fall 2021. Chorus wasn’t yet on his radar. In fact, he says, he wasn’t initially interested in singing. Prior to ninth grade, Charlie spent the summer in the Walden School Young Musicians Program for composing, a skill he cultivated during COVID lockdown when he finally started “writing things down.” The mandatory Chorus program at Walden pushed him into vocal performance. “I really enjoyed it,” Charlie says. “So, as school was starting in September, I asked to add Chorus to my schedule, and luckily it met during the two blocks of time I had free. I’ve been in Chorus ever since.”
“The music program at Commonwealth is really advanced; everyone is state of the art,” Charlie says, chuckling. “I mean, the man who directs Coro Allegro—one of the most critically acclaimed choruses in the country—directs us. Mr. Hodgkins is really detailed. He expects every note to be perfect—and it pays off. A lot of what he asks of us, his conducting and rehearsal, is because the music we make in the end is really quite beautiful.”
In 2021, Charlie was a winner of the National Young Composers Challenge. His composition, “Like a Single Star in the Night Sky,” was performed in April of the following year by the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra. He has since won multiple other accolades for composition, including the 2023 DeKalb Symphony Orchestra Young Composers Competition. His evolving relationship to music is very much shaped by other academic pursuits: his participation in Chorus, yes, but also courses in literature, creative writing, mathematics, and more. “Commonwealth English courses are especially a favorite of mine,” he explains. “I think they contribute a lot to what I do with composition and vice versa. ‘Does this note make sense here, and how does it contribute to the whole picture of the piece?’ How you construct a piece of literature can relate to how you construct a piece of music.”
Charlie’s process raises questions about the origin and cultivation of creativity that may seem beyond the scope of the school’s vocal music program, but not really. Those connections have been researched and confirmed by scientists and psychologists for generations. “Singing is a vital part of being human,” David says. “A lot of this could be said about the other arts, too. But one of the things music trains you to do is to stay focused for an extended period of time. And [there’s] the linguistic training: we’ve sung in German, French, Italian, Latin, Hebrew, Spanish, Russian, and English, so you start to learn about the world in different ways. Fine-listening skills are crucial. How do you tune with the person across the room? How do you count? Because there’s math involved. There’s also an understanding of musical ebb and flow that is a direct result of connecting with one’s breath: you can have four quarter notes in a row, and sometimes people will just sing four quarters in a row. But, in fact, to create a phrase you have to manipulate each of those four quarter notes differently, so that what you’re doing is taking something on a page and bringing it to life. Choruses, orchestras, chamber music, anything—it’s working together. It’s communication and trust that enables you to get on stage and not cower in fear.”
Hodgkins has taught music and music theory at Commonwealth since 1989, including to a number of people who have gone on to make music their vocation. Bass singer and trumpeter Luca Antonucci ’10 sang in Chorus and Chorale, in addition to playing in the jazz band and once in the orchestra. He is currently pursuing a doctorate in orchestral conducting at University of Michigan and credits his professional path to the tremendous sense of community he felt at Commonwealth. He also echoes a common theme: David Hodgkins encouraged him to join Chorus. “It turned out to be pretty much love at first sight—sound? I couldn’t believe how much fun it was. There’s just something incredibly satisfying about singing with other people, plus it was intellectually demanding and brought me into contact with an entire spectrum of great music that I had never known existed,” Luca says. “It was a great way to meet people and make friends. And the fact that students sang with teachers was truly special in a way I didn’t appreciate at the time. I think it helped contribute to the school’s amazing feeling of community.”
Grammy-nominated mezzo-soprano Julia Cavallaro ’04 has achieved national acclaim since graduating from Commonwealth. She, too, had no interest in joining Chorus initially, thinking of herself as a classical violinist, not a singer. With the encouragement of other choristers and David Hodgkins, she joined Chorus as a soprano. During her sophomore year winter concert, Chorus performed a Baroque German Christmas cantata, in which Julia sang a short solo movement for the very first time. She loved the experience so much that she later joined Chorale. There was no looking back.
“David Hodgkins imparted to us a sense of reverence and wonder for the beauty of music. He taught us to honor and delight in the experience of singing, and he showed us the power of choral music to move us and our audiences deeply. I am forever grateful that I had a chance to sing in Chorus and Chorale as a student at Commonwealth. I can’t imagine my life today without it.”
Lillien Waller is a poet, essayist, and editor. Her poems have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best New Poets, and she is editor of the anthology American Ghost: Poets on Life after Industry (Stockport Flats). Lillien is a Cave Canem Fellow and a Kresge Artist Fellow in the Literary Arts. She lives in Detroit.