For the past six years, the professional singers of Skylark Vocal Ensemble have flocked to Cape Cod for a summer retreat. They stay in the same houses, rehearse, catch up with one another, prepare for recordings, and plan for the future. For artistic director Matthew Guard, the Boston-area group already feels like family, which makes the annual outing their reunion. But COVID-19 means neither family reunions nor choir rehearsals are advised by most health authorities in 2020.
Skylark still managed to pull off a retreat this summer, but it looked very different from the usual. Only a handful of Skylarks and family members participated. All were contracted to quarantine and monitor for symptoms for two weeks beforehand. And once on the Cape, they unmasked; they shared a house and meals, hugged each other, and hunkered down to rehearse and record an impressive spread of digital mini-concerts — voices ringing out as one, face to face.
Numerous moving parts aligned perfectly to make this possible. It helped, for instance, that the ensemble decided early to punt its planned 2020-21 season and dive into the digital by launching a subscription service called Skylark+. “We had this great season all planned out, and we decided just to not announce it ... and start focusing on the idea of a [monthly] subscription model,” Guard said in a phone interview.
In another stroke of luck, the hub for past Skylark retreats was a board member’s eight-room guesthouse in Falmouth, complete with a rehearsal space. “We had a space that everyone was comfortable and familiar with,” explained Guard, who stressed that interactions were strictly limited to those within the group. “It wasn’t like we were going somewhere where we didn’t know what protocol was going to be.”
So that’s what it takes to sing safely (or as safely as possible anyway) in the middle of a pandemic — then there are technical feats required for the recording process itself. The material for the Cape virtual concerts was all recorded within eight days, with audio and video captured separately to offer a cleaner listening experience. This allowed singers to focus on vocals before video, explained Skylark artist Enrico Lagasca, who jumped into the role of lead videographer and editor in addition to singing. “We may not have all the best equipment for it, but it was doable,” Lagasca said over the phone.
“We’ve had enough recording sessions with really good folks that we kind of know enough to not make total fools of ourselves," Guard added. “But it definitely was myself and one of our spouses [the husband of soprano Sarah Moyer] in charge of the audio.”
During that intense week and change, the Skylarks recorded around 30 music videos on rocky beaches, in picturesque gardens, and in their host’s wine cellar. “We realized that if you put candles down there and take the wine bottles off the top rack ... it looks like choir stalls!” Guard said. “It was kind of cold, but other than that it was really beautiful and atmospheric.”
For choral music lovers, the repertoire for these mini-concerts is likely the most familiar element of a strange season: songs for a choral wedding, madrigals, German sacred music.
But not every Skylark singer could participate in the Cape retreat. The house could hold only so many of the group’s 25 artists. Others couldn’t drive or couldn’t manage such a strict quarantine. So other offerings on Skylark+ are by those who took off on their own.
Plenty of singers created art song programs. Fotina Naumenko called on her heritage in curating an evening of Russian art songs. The married couple of singer Clare McNamara and pianist Ian Garvie offered an evening inspired by nostalgia and longing. (It was definitely helpful to have so many musician/accompanist couples, Guard said.) Others accompanied themselves; Peter Walker showed his prowess on both vocal pipes and bagpipes with his Robert Burns-themed program, and Moyer showcased the fruits of her pandemic project — learning the ukulele — with a sweet program of Tin Pan Alley favorites.
Moyer, who also works as the ensemble’s manager, was well used to life on the go, singing with choruses all over the country. When the coronavirus shut down her professional life, Moyer found it deeply strange not to be living out of a suitcase. “I’m a total performer. I love being in front of an audience more than anything," she said over the phone. “Doing these videos is a chance to get back to my more musical theater roots, and for me to perform.”
As an added bonus, online concerts also let Skylark artists show off individual niches and vocal chops. In a typical season, Skylark is “pretty much just doing choral music,” Guard said. “So it’s really cool to see what people can do.”
With dozens of programs including recitals, themed concerts, and lectures. Suggested subscriptions of $9-$18 per month. www.skylarkensemble.org
Zoë Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.