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Choral groups learn excellence can be fun

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To sing like this, in the company of other souls, and to make those consonants slip out so easily and in unison, and to make those chords so rich they bring tears to your eyes – this is transcendence. This is the power that choral singing has that other music can only dream of."

– Garrison Keillor

The auditorium of Temple Beth-El here is buzzing with lively chatter and laughter, as 120 members of the Masterworks Chorale assemble to rehearse.

On this typical evening, these volunteer singers – who work long hours as doctors, lawyers, scientists, and educators – are in high spirits, exuding a good-humored camaraderie as they prepare to sing together.

"Once I get there and start singing, I feel young, like a kid in college again," says Susan Larson, a Harvard University arts administrator. "I'm doing something new, creative, and challenging. I find I'm renewed."

Her sentiments are echoed nationwide. Over the past two decades, community choruses have sprung up everywhere, supplementing the wealth of church choirs that traditionally have formed the musical backbone of many communities.

A National Endowment for the Arts study found that 1 in 10 American adults now sings weekly in some kind of chorus.

The Masterworks Chorale is among the cream of the crop of community choruses, due largely to its venerable artistic director, Allen Lannom, who is celebrating 50 years as the chorale's head. It is the longest tenure for a director of an independent chorus in the United States.

Mr. Lannom has turned the Masterworks Chorale into an ensemble known not only for the quality of its musicmaking, but for the depth and difficulty of its repertoire: from Beethoven's imposing "Missa Solemnis" to Carl Orff's challenging 1937 "Carmina Burana," which capped this year's season in May in front of a sold-out crowd of nearly 1,200 seats.

Lannom, who studied with choral conducting legend Julius Herford and was an assistant to Robert Shaw, one of the most influential figures in American choral music, was involved with the first US performance of "Carmina Burana" in 1954, preparing the Boston University Chorus for the legendary Leopold Stokowski.

Lannom took over the Masterworks Chorale in 1952, when it was still called the Lexington Choral Society.

At that time, there were few other community choruses around, and the quality of choral singing in general was much lower.

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