Nonprofit Spotlight: Cary Community Choir

The Cary Community Choir rehearses before its 2019 performance. The group has sung Handel's Messiah every year since 1971.

IN 2019, the Cary Community Choir saw its largest group – 165 performers – come together for the annual presentation of the Christmas portion of Messiah by George Frederic Handel.

Then, like so many other groups, the pandemic significantly altered the choir’s plans for 2020. In what would have been the group’s 50th performance year, the choir had to pivot to a virtual presentation format. While organizers say that provided a way to continue performing for the public, it wasn’t quite the same.

“The people that I’ve talked to, they’re very excited to come back together after a long drought of artistic expression and not being together,” said Pepper Choplin, the Cary Community Choir’s director. “One person in our choir has taken part in this performance for 49 years and another, 48 years – imagine the abrupt interruption of that tradition.”

Pepper Choplin, the choir’s director, leads the 2019 performance.

Instead of celebrating during the worst of the pandemic, the choir decided to mark its 50th performance anniversary this year with a special performance piece. In 2019, the group commissioned Choplin to write the piece in celebration of the milestone performance.

The choir is somewhat unique in that it is an all-volunteer choir that assembles for just four rehearsals leading up to one annual performance. That show is always a presentation of the Christmas portion of the Messiah, Choplin says.

Some choirs allow only highly accomplished musicians. The Cary Community Choir is not that group, and it’s something of which they’re very proud.

“We have everything from people with a master’s in music to people that just love to sing the Messiah,” Choplin said. “We have people who have never sung the Messiah before, and they’re learning as they go.”

The choir is the perfect middle ground for those who want to perform, but perhaps don’t have the time to invest in a long-term commitment, he says.

“Our results are really very impressive for the number of rehearsals we have,” Choplin said.

The all-volunteer choir accepts singers with a variety of musical backgrounds.

Today, the Cary Community Choir functions as a nonprofit organization. The group seeks donations in order to meet operating expenses, Choplin says. Its roots trace to 1971, the year of Cary’s Centennial, when local church choirs came together to perform for the celebration. Afterward, the choir directors of three churches – First Baptist Church, Cary Methodist Church (now First United Methodist Church), and White Plains Methodist Church – discussed reuniting the choirs to perform a challenging piece of music. They ultimately decided on Handel’s Messiah. Choplin is just the third director in the choir’s history. Charles Gatwood was the first director, followed by David Mellnik.

“As a community, I think it’s just wonderful to get people from different backgrounds pulled together,” Choplin said. “There is something powerful in bringing that many people together and singing in one voice on one project.

“I think it enriches the life of the community to have these kinds of groups. This is a chance for people to hop aboard and be a part of something powerful.”

Elizabeth Kiser Booker is a long-time participant in the Cary Community Choir, and now serves as vice president of the choir’s board. She grew up with Gatwood, attending a children’s camp where he served as director, and was later friends with Mellnik.

“The average age of our choir is above 60 now,” she said. “These are loyal and very talented members who come back year after year.”

At the same time, she’s seen a younger demographic coming on board recently. Her own adult children have performed alongside her in both the live and virtual formats.

Holiday Show

The Cary Community Choir will perform Handel’s Messiah at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 5 at Westwood Baptist Church, 200 Westhigh St., in Cary. Everyone in attendance, performers and audience, are to be vaccinated and masked. Rehearsals will take place with masks as well.

“I see more and more young people who want to keep the tradition going,” she said.

Booker noted an influx of new energy and new members when Choplin moved into the role of director in 2019, as he had his own group of followers. Choplin, a full-time conductor, composer and humorist, has conducted his music at both Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center in New York, as well as conducting his cantatas at Meymandi Auditorium in Raleigh.

Booker herself appreciates the meaningful tradition, as well as the opportunity to perform with her children.

“There is something special and almost magical about the music itself,” she said. “Being able to perform and participate in that every year is a true blessing.”

The Cary Community Choir prides itself on providing a similar experience to audiences each year, and not much changes from year to year, excluding pandemic-induced changes. That said, the group is always enthusiastic to grow and welcome new members.

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