September 23, 2008
Singers in Training
By STEVEN G VEGH
By Steven G. VeghThe Virginian-Pilot
Gospel music and spirituals were pretty much all Courtney Bailey heard growing up in her African American, Baptist church in Prince Georges County.
But Sundays now find Bailey, a Norfolk State University student, singing everything from cantatas to Renaissance music with the choir of Freemason Street Baptist Church in Norfolk.
Bailey is one of five local college music students who are singing as interns at Freemason under Robert Shoup, the church's music director.
"Growing up, I didn't pay the least bit of attention to classical music," said Bailey, a junior and alto singer.
But at Freemason, she's learned to love it.
"It's very sophisticated, very different for church music. It's very different from my home church - that's what I like about it." Besides, "I'm a music major. This is the kind of music I need to know about."
Shoup, who also is choirmaster of the Virginia Symphony Orchestra, started the internships three years ago.
"We'd get the benefit of an injection of singers in training," he said. "They'd get professional experience, and they'd have a worship community while they're away from home at college."
Karen Owens, an NSU senior who also studied music at the Governor's School for the Arts, said she was a fan of classical when she entered college.
Freemason feeds her craving for that music. "I like to sing more classical all of the time, and I don't get to hear a lot of it or be surrounded by a lot of people who do it."
Freemason, a 160-year-old, mostly white congregation, is as much committed to its music style as it is to its roots in a downtown enjoying a renaissance.
"This congregation is very clearly a traditional worship congregation - they're not of the mind that we'll chase every stylistic fad," Shoup said.
That means Sunday worshippers can expect classical song ranging from requiems - music composed for a Mass for the dead - to chamber music. Spirituals and hymns such as "Amazing Grace" also are sung.
At a recent Wednesday evening rehearsal, the students joined choir mates in the balcony in Freemason's ornate sanctuary.
The interns included Matt Johnson from Tidewater Community College and Emi Lee Frantz from Christopher Newport University. Scott Crissman, another CNU intern, was absent this evening, singing with a local opera company.
Martha Elton, a choir member, gave the opening prayer as sunlight poured through arched windows behind her.
"You have blessed us once again by bringing us together ... to make music to your glory," she said, as heads bowed.
Then Shoup kicked off the two-hour practice, running singers through "Nunc Dimittis," a canticle, and then a hymn that had sopranos including Owens clawing for high notes.
"It's known as a stratosphere descant!" Shoup said, laughing.
Bailey smiled as Shoup prodded: "Altos, tenors, bass, lead this baby, would you?"
Rich vibrato might seem essential to classics, but Shoup asked for an unwavering "straight tone" for the next tune from a Renaissance composer.
"Sopranos, let me hear your flutiest straight tone," said Shoup, urging them to sound like "10-year-old boys." Outside, sunset streaked clouds with pink.
Although the interns receive about $25 per session, the students said they feel like part of the Freemason faith family, not paid employees.
Nor do the black NSU students feel awkward in the mostly white church.
"Without even getting into the music of the choir, I love the people at Freemason," Bailey said. "It's a friendly, home setting."
Steven G. Vegh, (757) 446-2417, [email protected]
The Freemason Street Baptist Church in downtown Norfolk hosts paid choir internships during the school year for college students. This year, four students are singing bass, tenor, alto and soprano, with a fifth as a soprano alternate. Admission is by audition.
For information, contact Robert Shoup at (757) 625-7579 . The Freemason Street Baptist Church in downtown Norfolk hosts paid choir internships during the school year for college students. This year, four students are singing bass, tenor, alto and soprano, with a fifth as a soprano alternate. Admission is by audition. For information, contact Robert Shoup at 625-7579.
Originally published by BY STEVEN G. VEGH.
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