As the 2021 holiday season gets underway, vocal chords are once again warming up inside the Nathan Building, on Dorchester Center for the Arts’ second floor each Tuesday night, practicing for the Chorus of Dorchester.
The chorus’ holiday shows for the Cambridge community have been among the area’s most eagerly anticipated annual local traditions.
Due to 2020’s COVID precautions, the events were paused. But this year, Conductor Virginia “Cookie” Brohawn and company resume performing a widely ranging repertoire celebrating the season in song.
On Thursday, Dec. 2, the chorus comes to the Hyatt Regency to serenade the Dorchester Garden Club’s Gala luncheon, performing a “Holiday on the Choptank” program while also marking the club’s 91st year.
The chorus will also present a seasonal musical celebration titled “Tidings of Comfort and Joy” with two free public performances. The first will take place 4 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 11, at Christ Episcopal Church, Church and High streets, Cambridge. The second will be held at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 14, at Dorchester Center for the Arts, 321 High Street.
The wide-ranging repertoire will feature Antonin Dvorak’s moving tribute to those departed, the tune from his New World Symphony which became popularly known as “Goin’ Home,” famously performed by Paul Robeson, Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” and a diverse array of spiritual renderings, from “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring” and “Pie Jesu” to “Mary Did You Know” and “Jesus Oh What A Wonderful Child.” Modern classics include “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” and Leonard Cohen’s haunting “Hallelujah,” with special lyrics added by Brohawn.
The public is invited to join in with the chorus during the singing of Handel’s “Messiah” as the concert concludes.
Assisting with the performances will be Laura Todd on piano, Barbara Hubbard on organ, Robert Merkley on violin, and Steve Long serving as narrator.
Since founding the chorus in 1975, Brohawn has creatively led the venerable collective of all-volunteer voices. She’s also been instrumental to music instruction at the old Cambridge High School (where the current YMCA is located) and Cambridge South Dorchester High School, as well as leader of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church.
It was while at St. Paul’s that legendary local educator Dr. Tom Flowers (aka “The Old Honker”) called on Brohawn to bring together her students and church choir’s voices to form a benefit performance group in celebration of the American Bicentennial in 1976. After a nonstop year of putting on shows for packed audiences across the area, all in period costume, the group flourished into a local treasure.
The nonprofit group has played hundreds of benefit concerts across a variety of venues over the years, from Annapolis to Ocean City, on church stages, tall ships and floating barges, at museum openings and milestone celebrations, including long-time Senator Fred Malkus’ retirement. They’ve harmonized while adorned in everything from colonial period costumes to cowboy attire.
The only Maryland chorus organization requiring no auditions or membership fees, the chorus was awarded the honor of singing during statewide Maryland You’re Beautiful ceremonies held in Annapolis nine years in a row.
The Nathan Foundation and the George B. Todd Foundation are among many others the chorus is grateful to for support.
Dr. Betty Malkus, who helps put together the visual masterpiece of a program each year (with digital direction from her technologically skilled daughter), has enjoyed adding her soprano voice to the chorus while also providing special assistance to longtime friend Brohawn since its beginning. (In 1972 Brohawn helped Malkus’ son Chad, currently a Cambridge City Commissioner, with his first French horn audition for the Maple Elementary School Band.) Malkus has also partnered in maintaining the chorus’ extensive sheet music library located at the Arts Center and available to the public to use free of charge.
For Malkus, who begin singing in church at the age of 4 and performed with her two sisters during her childhood, music has always been a focal point of life. On family car rides, “We never needed to turn on a car radio, we all just sang,” Malkus recalled.
During COVID lockdown, Malkus struggled when not only performing but rehearsing together was put on hiatus for safety concerns. She dearly missed the musical camaraderie the group helped provide. Along with many fellow chorus members, she’s excited to be back.
Over the summer, after keeping track of what types of protocols other groups were following to resume meeting in person, Brohawn proposed requiring mandatory vaccination for members. While many have thanked her for taking the action, telling her it helped them decide to return, others have stayed away for a variety of reasons.
Joking that cooking and eating helped her endure pandemic isolation, Brohawn also reported playing a lot more piano at home, to the delight and apparent confusion of the squirrels visiting outside her window.
Maris Wicker, who joined the chorus several years ago after moving to the area, has been a soloist and provided backup piano accompaniment. At the age of 11, she was playing as her musician father performed. On Sundays, Wicker provides musical interludes for guests at the Yacht Club.
She commended Brohawn’s great love of music, for managing the group she knows well so beautifully, and for being supportive of members’ comfort levels, even emailing them that it was OK to keep masks on while singing, if that’s what they wanted to do.
Brohawn herself makes it a point to ensure that people feel comfortable wearing what they want, sitting if their knees or back are aching, and most of all, enjoying the experience of singing together.
Originally from upstate New York near Lake Ontario, music has always been a mainstay in Brohawn’s life, from earning a Bachelor of Music Education degree with French Horn concentration from West Virginia Wesleyan College, to performing with bands on Ocean City’s Boardwalk, where she met her husband, a native of Cambridge. Since joining him and making his hometown her own, countless students, choir members and chorus participants have been grateful for the musical gifts she’s shared.
“Cookie can get more music out of people they never knew they had,” Malkus said. “She has a real gift for choosing fantastic music just at the right level for those she’s conducting, not making it so challenging you want to pull your hair out,” she continued.
Mostly, she admires her spirit. While plenty of others in Dorchester would agree, Brohawn and Malkus mainly credit their supportive husbands, families, friends and the county they’ve been proud to support.