William Baker and the Festival Singers
A Quarter Century of Music in Atlanta
On Tuesday evening, February 26, 1985, a small cadre of some 20 singers met in the choir rehearsal room of the John Wesley United Methodist Church in the Atlanta suburb of Norcross. The ensemble was led by founder and music director, William O. Baker, an ambitious conductor who had been 26 years old for less than two weeks. He was assisted by co-founder Janis M. Lane, then 30, who would serve as associate music director until early 2009. Baker called his emerging ensemble “The Gwinnett Festival Singers” after the suburban county that would be its home for the first thirteen years of its existence. The first three years of the Festival Singers included an impressive repertoire of masterworks, though the short-form sacred a cappella classics and spirituals that would later form the Festival Singers’ signature repertoire were a part of its programming from the earliest days.
Nearly 50 singers were recruited for the first full season of the Gwinnett Festival Singers (1985-1986) that featured a December performance of the Bach MAGNIFICAT and concluded with three performances of the immortal Brahms EIN DEUTSCHES REQUIEM.
From its very first concert the Festival Singers nurtured a reputation for diversity and for quality of repertoire and performance. With nearly all rehearsals and most performances held in Gwinnett County, the Festival Singers were credited in the late 1980s with offering the first performances of many choral standards in the suburb that was known then as one of the fastest-growing communities in the nation. Classic works such as Mendelssohn’s ELIJAH, Bach’s CHRIST LAG IN TODESBANDEN, and Britten’s REJOICE IN THE LAMB were first offered in the community by the Festival Singers during the first five years of the chorus’ existence.
The Gwinnett Festival Singers conducted a concert tour of Great Britain in July 1988. Performances were scheduled in London, Birmingham, Chester, Bristol and Canterbury. The performance in Canterbury coincided with the Lambeth Conference and was attended by hundreds of delegates from the Anglican Communion around the world. The preview concert in Atlanta on the eve of the tour was hailed as a tour de force by Atlanta Constitution classical music critic Derrick Henry who described the sound of the chorus as “sensuous tonal beauty.”
At the conclusion of the 1988-1989 season, on the same day as the historic confrontation in China’s Tiananmen Square, the Festival Singers journeyed to Charleston to perform in the Piccolo Spoleto Festival. Thus began the annual tradition that would change the Festival Singers from a local choral ensemble to a regional sensation. On a rainy Sunday afternoon in 1995, the Circular Church in Charleston was so full that audience members were seated on the floors of the aisles and on the stage behind the singers, while hundreds of disappointed concert-goers stood outside the historic building in the rain. Under an umbrella and attired in his concert tux, William Baker walked down the line of disappointed concert-goers and promised to perform the concert again in its entirety for those who would return two hours later. After the scheduled performance, the Festival Singers took a short 15 minute break before returning to the stage to sing an unprecedented encore concert to a second capacity audience.
The White Hot Growth Years
The ambitious touring schedule of the Festival Singers was not limited to Charleston. Appearances at conventions of the American Choral Directors Association and the Music Educators National Conference took the chorus to Southeastern venues as widespread as Birmingham, Montgomery, Knoxville, Greenville, Spartanburg, Charlotte, Asheville, Savannah, Macon, and other Southern destinations.
Though the Festival Singers had produced several cassette recordings for sale to members and to audiences at Atlanta-area concerts, the first CD produced for national distribution was called “Live In Concert,” and was released in the fall of 1991. It was the first of six CD recordings to be released under the Gwinnett name. The successful recordings led to numerous radio broadcasts on local affiliates including WABE-FM’s Atlanta Music Scene. Three national radio programs, The First Art, The Protestant Hour, and The Sounds of Majesty broadcasted selections by the Festival Singers regularly. Portions of the 1997 Christmas Atlanta Festival, still one of Atlanta’s most beloved holiday traditions, were broadcast on Christmas Eve Day of that year on National Public Radio’s Performance Today.
The Festival Singers created a number of signature events during their white-hot years of early growth. Christmas Atlanta was first performed in 1989 at the Norcross United Methodist Church. Inspired by the nearly 100-year-old Christmas at St. Olaf program of readings and music by varied ensembles, and by the local Christmas With Robert Shaw, the concert featured the Festival Singers, a community children’s chorus, a professional-level instrumental ensemble, a soloist, and varying other musical contributors. Collaborators over the years have included the Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra, the Midtown Brass, the Gwinnett Young Singers, the Young Singers of Callanwolde, the Northside Young Singers, the Voices of Grace, the Northside Festival Singers, organists Sue Goddard, Michael Crowe and Trey Clegg, and soloists Arietha Lockhart and Laura English Robinson among many others.
From its earliest days the Festival Singers has been supportive of great causes in the wider community. From the first season the chorus has sponsored an annual benefit concert to raise funds for organizations that serve urgent human needs. These have included AIDAtlanta, Genesis Shelter, March of Dimes, Dream House for Medically Fragile Children, Rett Syndrome Foundation, and Hosea Williams Feed the Hungry among many others.
To support the growth of arts organizations across the metropolitan Atlanta area, William Baker created a number of festival concerts that have attracted thousands of listeners over the years. These have included the Gwinnett Festival of Music, the Midtown Community Festival of Music, and the Marietta Festival of Music. Other events have included choral workshops and festivals with noted guest conductors such as Alice Parker, Kenneth Jennings, Dale Warland, Moses Hogan, Andre Thomas and Anton Armstrong.
Years of Transition
Transition and triumph for the Gwinnett Festival Singers best describes the events of 1998. When William Baker and Janis Lane designed the chorus in 1985, they developed an organizational charter that gave a high-level of input to an independent board of directors called the “Executive Committee.” In the three year period that began with the chorus’ tremendous artistic success in 1994-1995, the Executive Committee and the Music Staff began to grow in different directions regarding the goals of the ensemble. These differences ultimately resulted in a split in the organization in April 1998, with the music staff and a number of singers in one group and the Executive Committee and other singers in another. In July, now solely under the name William Baker Festival Singers, the chorus performed an acclaimed concert in Spivey Hall for the Georgia Convention of American Choral Directors Association. That concert ushered in an era of four years when the chorus operated as a semi-professional project ensemble in Atlanta.
In the summer of 1990, members of the Gwinnett Festival Singers and the DeKalb Choral Guild (also directed by William Baker) assembled a non-auditioned summer-only chorus to sing lighter repertoire and to keep member’s vocal skills sharp during the traditional choral off-season. The Summer Singers of Atlanta, the city’s original summer chorus, was born.
The Festival Singers and the Choral Foundation
Working with choral enthusiasts from across the Atlanta region, and buoyed by the continual growth of each of his musical enterprises, in late 1990 Baker created an organization called The William Baker Choral Foundation. The Choral Foundation included the Summer Singers of Atlanta, the William Baker Festival Singers project chorus, and the conductor’s growing schedule of clinics, workshops, consulting and guest conducting appearances.
As a result of the crisis of 1998, the tradition of the Gwinnett Festival Singers was enfolded into the Choral Foundation and continued as The William Baker Festival Singers.
In July 1998, William Baker was offered the position of Music Director for the second largest Presbyterian congregation in the United States, The Village Church in Prairie Village, Kansas, a close-in suburb of Kansas City. In that church music was the primary source of income for the Baker family, the position was accepted on the condition that the work of the Choral Foundation would continue under the leadership of a commuting conductor. The Baker family moved to northeast Kansas in August 1998. During the years from 1998-2002, William Baker commuted from his new home in Kansas for weekly rehearsals of the Summer Singers of Atlanta, and for the occasional rehearsals of the William Baker Festival Singers.
The Project Chorus Years
During this era, the William Baker Festival Singers in Atlanta offered project-chorus events. Among the most successful were concerts of French works with AGO Award Winning organist Ernest Oelkers that included the REQUIEM of Durufle, and an acclaimed performance of Schubert, Haydn and Mozart works called “A Night in Old Vienna.” In the meantime, the Choral Foundation began to establish a foothold in Kansas City. The William Baker Festival Singers of Kansas City began rehearsals in October 1998 as a year-round ensemble specializing in short-form sacred a cappella classics and spirituals. In the first eleven seasons of the WBFS-Kansas City, the group has toured from Chicago to New Orleans and from central Kansas to Atlanta. In recent years the chorus has performed both the ST. MATTHEW PASSION and the MASS IN B MINOR of Bach with members of the Kansas City Symphony, becoming the only Kansas City-based ensemble in over two decades to perform either work.
With the energy streams of the Summer Singers, the former Gwinnett Festival Singers, and the William Baker Festival Singers flowing from two metropolitan areas coming together, the maturing conductor began to conceive a vision of a national organization to support the growth of the choral art. In a note to the membership of the Festival Singers in September 2003 he said, “I have come to see the enterprise we call the Choral Foundation as my life’s work, and I will endeavor to lay aside all other professional interests to build it for a future that will long outlive me.” To that end, in 2003 Baker moved from a career as a vocational church musician leading the Choral Foundation part-time to full-time employee and builder of the organization.
The William Baker Festival Singers in Atlanta had returned to a year-round schedule with the 2002-2003 season, but still functioned as a project chorus. Beginning with the 2003-2004 season, the chorus returned to a weekly rehearsal schedule and a full slate of a cappella concerts as a continuation of the tradition of the former Gwinnett Festival Singers first created in 1985. Rehearsals were moved to Sunday evenings and an office was re-established in Atlanta. Baker began his weekly year-round commute to Atlanta in September 2003 that continues as his schedule to the present day.
The 2003-2004 season also saw the renewal of many Festival Singers traditions, including Christmas Atlanta, the annual benefit concert, and an annual performance of a major choral/orchestra masterwork. The season was highlighted in May 2004 by the first performance of the Festival Singers at the Piccolo Spoleto Festival since 1997. A standing room-only audience gathered in the Grace Episcopal Church in Charleston, the same historic building where earlier incarnations of the chorus had scored many musical triumphs during the 1990s. The thunderous applause of the audience and the tear-filled eyes of chorus and audience members added an unforgettable dimension to the historic occasion. The concert formed the live-in-concert CD, Amazing Grace, which was the Festival Singers’ best selling recording for a number of years.
A New Era
The five years from 2004-2009 have been a period of explosive artistic growth and steady development for the William Baker Festival Singers. Each year the musicianship of the ensemble has grown. The last three years have brought the most balanced and skilled ensembles in the organization have storied history. Major works have included Bernstein’s CHICHESTER PSALMS, Stravinsky’s SYMPHONY OF PSALMS, Durufle’ REQUIEM, Kodaly’s LAUDES ORGANI, Haydn’s TE DEUM, Vivaldi’s BEATUS VIR, Faure’s REQUIEM, and the world premier of William Dreyfoos’ SONGS OF THE HOLOCAUST.
Still focused primarily on memorized concerts of a cappella folk songs, spirituals and classics, the scope and diversity of the Festival Singers’ signature repertoire continues to expand. Performances by the chorus at Charleston’s Piccolo Spoleto Festival continue to attract larger and larger audiences. One of the 2008 performances attracted so many concert-goers that dozens of music lovers wishing to hear the concert had to be turned away.
Ellen Dressler Moryl, Director of the Office Cultural Affairs in Charleston, said this following the 2008 concert by the Festival Singers:
“The William Baker Festival Singers is one of the very finest choral groups of any size or genre in the Southeastern United States and beyond. Under the direction of their founder, William O. Baker -a consummate artist in his own right, performances are excellent, breathtaking and inspiring. Piccolo Spoleto audiences (usually standing room only) have enjoyed their concerts for the past 15 (or so) years. I recommend them enthusiastically and without qualification.”
Following the 2009 concert during the Charleston Festival at Franke at Seaside, Emily Remington, retired conductor of the Charleston Symphony Singers Guild announced, “This is the most polished Festival Singers’ chorus ever…hands down…and that is saying a lot!”
A Quarter Century and Beyond
The upstart chorus of some 20 singers that gathered in a Norcross choir room on February 26, 1985, is now the flagship ensemble of a national organization that will open the 2009-2010 season with up to a dozen choral ensembles involving some 600 men, women, youth and children meeting in three states. These include both the Kansas City and Atlanta ensembles of the William Baker Festival Singers led by the founder, along with the Northside Festival Singers based in Alpharetta, Georgia under the direction of Don Brainerd, and the Cobb Festival Singers, Northside Young Singers and Cobb Summer Singers based in Marietta, Georgia under the direction of Lynn Swanson. New choruses for dedicated teens have been created in Olathe, Kansas, and Columbus, Georgia, giving the organization four distinct constituent communities. The Choral Foundation also sponsors an aggressive Student Intern/Choral Scholar program and a music publishing house, the Kansas City-based Amber Waves Music Publishing (www.AmberWavesPublishing.com)
The 25th Anniversary Season of the Festival Singers opened in Gwinnett County where the tradition began in 1985 as the WBFSA joins with the Gwinnett Symphony Orchestra for a gala performance of Brahms EIN DEUTSCHES REQUIEM, the ambitious work that concluded the first full season in 1985-1986. In addition to concerts of a cappella repertoire and numerous festival collaborations, all four Festival Singers choirs met in Atlanta on February 21, 2010 for a festive concert celebrating the anniversary of the first rehearsal. Alumni from the 25 concert seasons joined the combined choruses in mass choir selections conducted by Dr. Baker. Before culminating the season with another performance at Charleston’s Piccolo Spoleto Festival, the William Baker Festival Singers joined with full professional orchestra and distinguished soloists for a performance on May 1, 2010 of Bach’s epic ST. JOHN PASSION in the South’s most prestigious venue, Spivey Hall.
The music of the William Baker Festival Singers has been hailed by critics and audiences alike in hundreds of concerts, recordings and broadcasts. Observing that the Festival Singers perform most concerts from memory, Carol Furtwangler of the Charleston Post & Courier said, “It is not just that the Festival Singers perform without music scores…no, they sing from their hearts.”