By Peter Converse McDonald
According to Shirley Cowell, who was the Sippican Choral Society’s first president, 10-15 people from Marion first began talking about forming a chorus sometime in 1964. At that time, church choirs were the only outlet available to sing together. So this group, wanting a larger unified organization, contacted John Pandolfi, who was Director of the Tri-County Symphonic Band. He offered to allow this group to sing with his band provided they formally organize, which they did, calling themselves the Regional Civic Chorus. The first concert, on December 3, 1965, was held in Bristol Auditorium at Old Rochester Regional High School, and was a joint one with the Tri-County Symphonic Band. Thelma Ostenfeld, our first Accompanist, was very encouraging and helped find the chorus’ first Music Director, Xavan Mazmanian, who was a music teacher at ORR.
The first concert, with 35 singers, almost all of whom were from Marion and Mattapoisett, was a strange mix of music – with everything from Bach’s “Honor and Glory” and Berlioz’ “Thou Must Leave Thy Lowly Dwelling” to Copeland’s “Stomp Your Foot” and Peter Wilhousky’s wonderful arrangement of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.” Versatility seems to have been the theme!
It wasn’t until early 1972 that the chorus was re-named the Sippican Choral Society, and by then it had grown to 40-50 members and fallen into the pattern of concerts it still adheres to today: a Christmas Concert of both sacred and secular Christmas music, and a Spring Concert, usually in April or May. This second concert many times has been sung twice – once in Marion and once out “on the road” – everywhere from New Bedford to Cambridge and Lexington to Plymouth and Fall River. We’ve also sung many joint concerts – with the New Bedford Choral Society and the NBSO, as well as with the Concord Chorus, the Plymouth Philharmonic Orchestra and the SouthCoast Chorale in Fall River. The Spring Concert is sometimes all classical in nature, and sometimes all secular.
One memorable concert was in 1976 as part of the Bicentennial, when the chorus sang “200 Years of American Theatre Music.” We’ve done concerts of sea shanties, staged Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, and performed medleys from Broadway, American folk music, and even some jazz. Another highlight was singing with the NBSO and Choral Society at the dedication of the New Bedford Historic Whaling Park, when we performed Beethoven’s 9th and Vaughan Williams “Sea Symphony.”
While numbers sometimes say little, in this case they say much about the Sippican Choral Society and the impact it’s had on the communities along our beautiful coast. Since December of 1965:
Over 5,000 singers from all the towns along the Southcoast, as well as from Plymouth, Middleborough, Taunton, Boston, and the Cape, have sung in over 130 concerts. Close to 45,000 people have heard us sing well over 850 different pieces of music.
We’ve had 9 Music Directors over the past 50 years, one of whom gave us a reprise. They have brought out the best in us, taking us places musically we didn’t know we could go. They are:
Xavan Mazmanian 1965 - 1968
Edwin Roberts 1968 - 1971
Leo Peduzzi 1971 - 1973
Peter West 1973 - 1981
Richard Shattuck 1982
Judith Dautel 1983 - 1988
Peter West 1988 - 2003
Brian Roderick 2003 - 2015
Tianxu Zhou 2015 - 2018
And finally, we especially want to honor our five accompanists, who worked harder and longer than any of us. We owe them a huge debt of gratitude for their talent, sense of humor, faithfulness, encouragement, ideas, and love. They are:
Thelma Ostenfeld 1965 – 1980
Michelle Platt 1980 – 1981
Judith Dautel 1981 – 1983
Corinne Peck 1983 – 2001
Michelle Platt Gordon 2001 –
The Sippican Choral Society typically features 80 to 90 singers at concerts, which says something about our growth from the original 15 in 1964 who organized us and the 35 in 1965 who sang at our first concert. It is somewhat humbling, and very gratifying as well, to realize how many people have heard and, hopefully, enjoyed the wide range of music the chorus has presented over the past 50 years.
A member of the chorus was once asked what would bring her out of a warm home on a cold and snowy January night to a rehearsal over ten miles away. Her answer, I think, is why we all do it: “It’s just for the joy of singing.” May the next 50 years be full of such joy.