Singing from a Distance

The Keene Sentinel, Aug 20, 2020
By Nicole S. Colson

If you close your eyes, you’d think you were sitting in a concert hall, listening to a large choir singing a beautiful and tender song, voices rising and falling, in perfect synch with each other. But these voices in question are not only virtual, they’re from singers separated by oceans and international borders.

Boston City Singers had planned several events to celebrate its 25th anniversary in April. Three international choirs — two from New Zealand and one from Croatia — were set to share the stage with Boston City Singers in a concert in Cambridge, Mass.

Each choir chose a piece to share from their country. The two from New Zealand, who had planned to visit Boston after performances in Carnegie Hall, together selected “Hine e Hine,” a Maori lullaby written by Fannie Rose Howie in 1907, arranged for mixed choir by David Hamilton. Boston City Singers’ Tour Choir also planned to perform in New Hampshire with Keene State College Concert Choir, with a further performance of “Hine e Hine” scheduled to close the program in May.

Then the pandemic hit.

“In April, we were trying to hold onto the last concerts of the season,” said Matthew Leese, director of the Keene State College Concert Choir. “We talked about doing [the concerts] outside. We were at the point where we thought maybe things wouldn’t get as bad as they did.”

It was Jane Money, artistic director of Boston City Singers, who made the decision to change the format of the concerts all together.

“Jane called me and said she had an idea because she’d seen videos I’d made for the Concert Choir,” he said of Money, who is from New Zealand, as is Leese (he is also artist-in-residence with Boston City Singers). “She asked me if it would be possible to do that and involve people from around the world.”

At that moment, Leese felt overwhelmed, although the concert choir had already somewhat learned the Maori piece. “I thought it was best to get students through the end of the semester and make this a summer project,” he said.

Fiona Wilson directs Cantare, a New Zealand-based high school choir and one of the two groups that participated in this project; and Jared Corbett directs Kentoris, the other participating choral group. Three singers from Zvjezdice, Croatia, also participated. The concept at the forefront of the project from the beginning was making singers who are far apart in other countries feel like they are singing side by side —in person, not on a screen.

“[The pandemic] has been really hard for some people,” Leese said. “Some haven’t quite realized how much they’d relied on music and singing.”

After reaching out to the singers inviting them to participate, he began to receive inquiries from Keene State alumni who also wanted to be involved. The original goal was to include 40 singers in the virtual concert — the final tally was 80. Eighteen are singers from the KSC Concert Choir and alumni, along with faculty collaborative pianist Christopher Evatt.

Leese, who has been recording concerts for more than 20 years, had some technical and editing experience so was confident he could make this work.

“You have to decide from the get-go what you want the finished product to look like,” he said. “You have to have in mind colors, lighting, what people will be wearing — it has to be as uniform as possible.”

Leese also had to consider the overall tone of the video.

“We decided because the song is so sweet and tender, we wanted it to be about the music,” he said.

The song, well-known in New Zealand (the title’s English translation is “Little Girl, Little Girl”), carries a message that is especially poignant in such uncertain times.

“It was so cathartic to work on that beautiful piece every day and hear those harmonies building and building as we added voices,” Leese said. “The [song’s] text is about trusting everything will be okay.”

Katrina Feraco, a 2017 Keene State College graduate in the music program and a Keene resident, was one of the 80 voices included in this project. A former member of the Concert Choir and a voice instructor, she was contacted by Leese to participate.

“I hadn’t thought about choral singing in a while,” she said. The music was accessible to her and she had a suitable space to record with good acoustics, so she agreed. “It was the right time — something to take my mind off being out of work.”

Feraco used her iPhone to record the audio, her Amazon Kindle to read the sheet music and her laptop to record video and watch a pre-recorded clip of Leese conducting the piece. She was amazed at how it came out.

“I could not believe we had such a blended sound, and nobody was trying to sing like a soloist, which is difficult to do singing alone,” she said. “Everyone sounded really happy. There was a sense of connection that hit me when I saw the final product. Music is a beautiful way to connect with people in the best of times and in the most trying times. It’s a natural way to express our emotions and we don’t have to speak the same language to do it.”

Leese recorded the piano part first, which opens the video, followed by a model audio track with a small group of singers choir members could listen to for practice. The first singer heard in the completed video is Anna Leese (Leese’s sister), an award-winning lyric soprano, trained initially in New Zealand, then at the Royal College in London. She has sung on many of the world’s great opera and recital stages and was a finalist in the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition.

Then the larger group of participants recorded video themselves, singing along with the pre-recorded track. The final step was editing the audio to blend the voices and adding thumbnail versions of all the video submissions into one to create the final virtual choir and uploading the video to YouTube this month.

“Some of what we do is for us [singers] but it’s mostly for the audience,” Leese said, adding that the video has received nothing but positive feedback. “This video is important to them. We encourage [singers] to think of it as a gift they’re giving to people.”

Visit to watch the video.