Battenkill Chorale adjusts to singing during Covid era

The chorale in rehearsal with founding director Janet McGhee

The Battenkill Chorale was established in 1995 by founding director Janet McGhee. Through the years, this eclectic and dedicated group of amateur singers has become one of the “cultural crown jewels” of the North County and the Capital Region.

Its 2018 performance of Verdi’s Requiem was ranked as the Capital District’s number-one classical music performance in the Schenectady Daily Gazette’s “Best of 2018.”

The Battenkill Chorale performs major works from the choral music literature from intimate chamber pieces to larger-scale dramatic works for soloists, chorus and orchestra. Its richly varied and critically acclaimed repertoire includes both sacred and secular music from the 15th to 20th centuries, all sung in the original language.

The chorale has gone through some big changes in the last few years, said the group’s president and executive director Judy Leon. “When Janet McGhee, our founding artistic director, retired in 2019 after almost 25 years at the helm, many of our singers took the opportunity to retire as well. We went from a chorus of 75 to 100 singers to fewer than 50 quite suddenly.”

The group’s new guest conductor Noah Palmer began with a small chorus but was successfully adding to its numbers with each concert cycle. Palmer became artistic director for the chorale’s 25th-anniversary season with a concert in January 2020.

“Noah took over about a week before we started hearing reports about this mysterious virus,” said Leon.

A collaboration with the Berkshire Lyric Chorus culminating in a grand concert at Seiji Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood in Lenox, Massachusetts, had to be shelved when Covid shut down everything in March 2020.

It was a real loss, said Leon. “I was reading reports about nothing as risky as singing. It was heartbreaking to not being able to do it, for singers and audiences alike. One oboe sounds a lot like another, but human voices? There just isn’t anything like it.”

The chorale explored a variety of virtual options, Leon said, but abandoned these due to technical and connectivity issues in rural Washington County.

The group planned two live outdoor “pop-up” concerts when public health conditions improved. Interested singers were mailed the music and a practice CD and expected to practice on their own until it was safe to get together, Leon said.

The Battenkill Chorale in performance.

In August 2021, chorale members finally were able to have several in-person rehearsals for the pop-up concert. “We rehearsed without masks in a large open barn, everyone was fully vaccinated and we maintained distance at all times,” said Leon. But when one person in the chorus tested positive for Covid, members were masked at all times until the concerts, which were both outdoors, one in Cambridge and one in Saratoga.

“We voted unanimously to sing without masks. It was such a joy to sing together unencumbered, but also bittersweet, because our conductor Noah Palmer had decided to pursue other opportunities.”

The group then recruited chorale friend and accomplished soprano, organist, teacher and conductor Gene Marie Callahan as its guest conductor and began rehearsals in September 2021
for concerts scheduled for mid-January 2022 at the Arthur Zankel Music Center at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs.

“We had 35 singers registered, and our rules were that everyone had to be fully vaccinated – we checked vaccination cards at the first rehearsal – we would wear masks at all times within the rehearsal space and we would maintain distance at all times.” But then a series of unfortunate events intervened: The venue told the chorale that it would not be allowed to perform there, the chorale’s accompanist tested positive for Covid the day after a rehearsal, “and then Omicron hit and that made us nervous enough to pause rehearsals indefinitely in December 2021.”

The chorale hopes to begin rehearsals again in early March and perform on the weekend of June 4 and 5, Leon said. Details, including venue, are still being worked out.

“Meanwhile, to keep everyone together and progressing, our intrepid conductor Gene Marie Callahan is providing virtual rehearsals or ‘listening sessions’ every Thursday at 7 p.m., our usual rehearsal time. This is valuable, but the reality is that nothing can ever take the place of in-person rehearsals. It’s just the nature of choral singing,” said Leon.

The pandemic has been a rough time for choruses, Leon said. “Nevertheless, we persevere, because in the end we just want to be singing.”

The chorale is always looking for interested singers. “You don’t have to read music,” said Leon, because practice CDs are provided. “People learn music differently,” she said. “Some might have pianos in their houses, others use the CDs to learn the music by memory.” Leon rehearses with the practice CD as she’s driving.

“When people think of a small community chorus, they think it might be rinkydink,” Leon laughed. When she moved to Cambridge from an area close to New York City, she didn’t expect
to find the Battenkill Chorale. “But then I went to my first rehearsal, the person next to me shared her music with me and I was blown away.”

For more information about the Battenkill Chorale, visit or its Facebook page at

To join the chorale, contact Judy Leon at 518-677-5111 or email to request a registration form.

NYVT Media
Author: NYVT Media

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