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Vol. LXI, No. 24
November 27, 2009
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Chamber Singers Make Beautiful Music Together

Dwight Brock (r) discusses a piece of music with the group.

Above, Dwight Brock (r) discusses a piece of music with the group.
At right, Ken Kirk practices his flute for a piece on the holiday program.

The Chamber Singers plan an NIH concert at noon on Wednesday, Dec. 9 in the CRC atrium. Other area concerts will be at 1 p.m. Dec. 5 at Potomac Library, 7 p.m. Dec. 10 at Twinbrook Library and 1:30 p.m. Dec. 13 at North Chevy Chase Christian Church.

Ken Kirk practices his flute for a piece on the holiday program.

NIH’ers tend to be talented people. Whether it’s creating fine crafts, shooting gorgeous photography or excelling in a variety of sports, there’s no shortage of extracurricular skill going around.

The same goes for musical talent, particularly singing. Founded as an R&W club 15 years ago, the NIH Chamber Singers is now a 17-member choral group that performs works ranging from Bach to the Beatles, and does its best to do justice to all types of music.

Singers are not only fellows and employees of FDA and NIH, but also NIH alumni and a few others drafted into the group, such as conductor Dwight Brock’s wife, Mary, and daughter, Shelley Roth, the group’s pianist for the few pieces they perform that aren’t sung a cappella.

“Once most of the venues where the group performs got functional pianos, I became pretty much the ‘hired help’ for pieces with piano accompaniment,” Roth said. But it’s not a bad deal. “Dad sometimes pays me in wine for my services. Works for me.”

Other members’ backgrounds are similarly varied. There’s the FDA scientist who works on regenerative medicine, the senior investigator from NCI who’s sung in a women’s barber shop group and the NIMH fellow whose musical resumé includes singing in a chamber choir, on stage in musicals and even in a gospel group. Nearly everyone has some sort of funny story about how they came to be a part of the group, but most stories are something like Ken Kirk’s.

“I first became aware of the chamber singers by attending a few concerts in the late 1990s,” he said. Kirk sang in a church choir and was tempted to audition for the chamber group, but for a while thought better of it. “This group was so good that any thought of joining was, in my mind, out of the question.”

Fortunately, Kirk was also a member of another R&W club at the time, the NIH Sailing Association. At a club party, some singing started and one member suggested Kirk give the chamber singers a try.

“So I decided to do it,” he said. “My rendition of Back Home Again in Indiana surprisingly got me in.”

It was a fortuitous chain of events, not only for Kirk, but also for the group. Prior to the attacks of 9/11, the NIH campus—as many people know—had been an open stretch of real estate with no fence and no visitor registration. That all changed, and so did the group’s regular meeting space, Masur Auditorium, once new regulations were put in place and the perimeter fence went up.

Unable to meet regularly on campus in an area with a piano, the group shifted to the Brocks’ church. But the location of the church, 15 to 20 minutes from campus in rush-hour traffic, made meeting unwieldy. Enter Kirk, who had recently moved into a new home just off campus and had an upright piano in his ample living room. Problem solved. Every Tuesday night, the house fills with sound and Kirk’s gray cat even gets in on the action now and then.

“Sushi the cat has been with the group since we came over here,” he said. “Occasionally, she hides from the din.”

Even with fewer than 20 singers, the group is able to perform some technically demanding material, often requiring members to sing 6- or 8-part harmonies.

“Rediscovering the joy of making music after many years away is a wonderful experience,” said Dr. Marjorie Guroff of NCI. Though music was always a big part of her life, something had to give in her postdoc years when she was already burdened with the responsibilities of family life and a career in science. With her children grown, Guroff found she had time for music again and joined the chamber group 5 years ago.

“I’ve always loved close harmony, and especially singing in a small group format where every voice plays an important part,” she said. “The music the singers perform spans hundreds of years, and I’ve enjoyed the exposure to music I might never have discovered on my own. After an hour of singing, it’s impossible to leave a practice with anything but a light heart.”

Of course, rehearsals are nothing without a reason to perform, so the NIH Chamber Singers hold concerts in the spring and during the holiday season. The singers will offer four concerts in early December, including a Dec. 9 performance in the Clinical Research Center’s atrium. The program consists of sacred and secular Christmas and Hanukkah selections from a variety of countries and musical traditions, including early and 20th century American, German and British cultures.

In keeping with its insistence on variety, the program will also include a rowdy, Cockney-accented caroling piece and an 8-part Hark, Now, O Shepherds, as well as the beautiful Ave Maria of Franz Biebl performed by the group’s men and selections from Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols performed by the women. NIHRecord Icon

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