Voices of an Amateur Choral Group Reach Beyond Dobbs Ferry
By HUBERT B. HERRING
"Your eighth notes are too stodgy," Ms. Peck scolded. "We need more movement." "Basses, it drags there." "That should be absolutely smooth, gorgeous, no bumps, nada." "The C sharp is not high enough." "That's a little lazy right there." "It's got to boom! Just clear as a whistle."
When one singer suggested that Ms. Peck had slowed the tempo, she replied in mock horror: "I slowed down? You mean I'm not perfect?"
Not perfect, perhaps, but undeniably versatile. Ms. Peck, 46, who was born in Australia, has a parallel career as soprano soloist, chamber singer and voice teacher, having appeared and recorded with the Waverly Consort, Musica Sacra and many other groups.
But "I've been wanting to conduct since I was 15," she said. "I used to sit in the high school chorus and watch the conductor and think, I could do better. But I wanted to be a singer, so I put that on the back burner."
In singing, though, solo success is rare - and draining. "If I'd had the solo career I envisioned, I would still have done this, but maybe later," she said.When opportunity knocked, "I pulled away from all the loneliness, the competition, of a solo career."
That was in 1994, when she took over a small local ensemble, renaming it Charis (pronounced KAH-ris), for the Greek word for grace.
She revels in the challenge. Leading a chorus means "having to have incredible intuition about people, knowing how to build them up and tear them down," she said. It means "not compromising when I'm tired and it's not good enough."
The 28 singers, mostly Westchester residents, range in age from 30's to 60's. Professionally, they are a bit of everything: scientists, a mathematician, a music therapist and an owner of a preschool.
And they are a devoted bunch. "I've learned so much," said Pat Rentas, 54, a medical researcher at New York University and a Charis member from the start. "It's one of the best parts of my life."
Alan King, 46, a manager at I.B.M.'s research center in Yorktown Heights, said, "Susanne gets irritable, as all musical directors do." But "it's fabulous to work with a director who's also a singer, because she can tell me exactly what do to fix an intonation problem."
One policy is rare for an amateur choir: every singer must audition every year. "It's not a lifetime membership," Ms. Peck said, quickly adding: "That doesn't mean I kick a lot of people out. If I sense a problem, I give them a period of time to work on their voice, their weak points." In the end, she has decided to dismiss only four or five.
Some grace notes: Charis will perform Rutter's "Gloria" and other works on Dec. 9 at South Presbyterian Church. Its CD is available from Amazon and some local stores, or from the group's Web site (www.charisvocals.com).
But let Ms. Peck have the last words, spoken at rehearsal, which seem to sum up her quest: "I'm going to have you do it again, because I want it to be so beautiful."