Ridgewood-based Pro Arte Chorale is turning 50 this year with no wrinkles and a forever-young outlook. The 60-member volunteer chorus has found its own fountain of youth in its guiding philosophy of always striving for excellence and never being afraid to tackle any musical challenge.
They plan to celebrate their gold anniversary with a gala concert in June honoring their founder John Coulter and featuring John Nelson as their special guest conductor. The group sang under Nelson's baton from 1965 to 1974. They are eagerly awaiting his appearance – not an easy thing to arrange around Nelson's busy concert schedule. He has conducted most of the world's top orchestras, including the London Symphony Orchestra, Orchestre de Paris and the New York Philharmonic, and he has worked with singers at major opera houses around the world. Central to Nelson's work is the interpretation of the great sacred choral literature, still a mainstay for the Pro Arte Chorale.
The current conductor, Steven Fox, will share the podium in June with Nelson. He also shares Nelson's dedication to performing the great works of choral music, both sacred and secular.
"I feel very honored to be with them for their 50th anniversary," says Fox, who hadn't even been born when the group was founded. "Even though this is only my second year with them, I already feel very much a part of the group."
Fox brings a fascinating background to the Pro Arte Chorale. He discovered great choral music while a high school student at Horace Mann School in New York City.
"I was singing in a rock band and the conductor of the school glee club asked me to give them a try," he says. "The conductor was remarkable because he believed in the power of great music and didn't dumb it down for us."
Even though he couldn't read music when he first joined the glee club, Fox was immediately exposed to the classical masterpieces.
"I remember having chills down my spine when we reached the crescendo of the 'Lacrimosa' movement in Mozart's Requiem," he says about one of his very first rehearsals.
While a Russian language student at Dartmouth College, he studied abroad in St. Petersburg and was so inspired by the music he heard during his free time that he returned the next year, funded by a Reynold's Fellowship, to establish the first period instrument orchestra in Russia, Musica Antiqua St. Petersburg. He is still their music director, as well as artistic director of the well-known Clarion Music Society in New York City, another group that specializes in music from the Baroque era.
Fox plans to use his musical experiences as a springboard to take the group to new places and even greater achievements. One of his goals is to strike a balance between preserving Pro Arte's connection to their repertoire of the past while continuing to grow musically.
"They have the capability of doing that music at a higher level and tackling new challenges," he says confidently.
Another goal is to reach broader audiences. One innovation has been to perform the same concert at other venues, including the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Montclair, in addition to their home base of West Side Presbyterian Church in Ridgewood. Selling CDs, such as the one they made of their Russian program last year, is also spreading their music.
Having discovered for himself how great music can transform young lives, Fox is dedicated to reaching more young people. He sees the Internet and YouTube, in particular, as a modern way to do that, as well as continuing joint concerts with high school and university choirs.
"When people have a great experience when they are young, it changes them for life," he says.
Steven Palmieri, one of the longtime Pro Arte members, is proof of that. He has sung with the group off and on since he was 17. His mother had joined in the mid-1960s, and her teenage son went to a few of her dress rehearsals.
"They had me floating above my seat," he says fondly. "I was hooked."
Although Palmieri had studied music theory in high school, he didn't play in the band or sing in the school chorus.
"The first piece I sang with Pro Arte was 'Carmina Burana', he says, which was conducted by John Nelson. He showed me what great musicianship was, and I was hooked," he says.
Palmieri currently teaches music and technology to special needs students and has also worked on the sales and development side of the audio industry. He is like the many other members who are professional musicians.
He loves the varied music he has performed with Pro Arte through the years. In addition to pieces by the greats – Mozart, Haydn, Bach and Brahms – they have also tackled 20th century composers, which as Palmieri points out, challenges the singers with very difficult rhythms and out-of-the-ordinary pitch material.
"We are not a 'community chorus,' which is more about just having fun singing," he says with a clear note of pride. "We push ourselves to get things to a very refined level."
Alexandra Fetner is one of the younger faces in the group, and she likes it for the same reasons her older friends do.
"It's a privilege to work with a great conductor while improving my own skills," she says.
Fetner won a scholarship from Pro Arte when she was in high school and received free membership, music and $500.
"This was the first time I had ever been paid to sing, and that is such an exciting experience," she says. "I was able to take myself more seriously as a performer and musician."
Now that she has graduated from Carnegie Mellon with a degree in vocal performance, she is continuing her music studies in New York City and immersing herself in the city's culture of classical music. She still makes time to perform with Pro Arte, however, whenever she can fit the rehearsals into her busy schedule.
Those and other dedicated musicians are what the 50th anniversary celebration is all about.
"We have a chance to get the great music out there," Fox says. "We have to think not just about the Pro Arte Chorale, but how to expose audiences to what for so many of us makes life worth living: great, great art."