For the past 25 years, the dark of the year has been a bright spot for many Juneau singers. This is the time for Juneau Lyric Opera’s MidWinter Vocal Festival, where, under the direction of visiting instructors Dr. Byron McGilvray and Jan Capelle, some of Juneau’s best-known voices come together with beginning singers to share the joys of making music together. It’s a tradition that many eagerly look forward to, said 25-year participant Lena Simmons — and one that comes at just the right time.
“You get Christmas over and done with — and for a lot of people, Christmas is depressive anyway — the weather is always crappy, it’s dark all the time, and then you can come to a warm environment with all these people who want to do the same thing you do, and make this glorious sound. What more could you ask for?” Simmons said.
McGilvray, the festival’s leader, travels from Texas every year with colleague Capelle to teach participants new choral works and help them build skills through ever-changing workshops, in topics such as sight reading and music theory. The week of workshops and rehearsals culminates in a festival performance, this year scheduled for Saturday at Thunder Mountain High School.
The festival program for this year reprises the two pieces performed for very first concert: Mozart’s “Laudate Dominum” and the “Kyrie” from Schubert’s Mass in G. The solo for the Mozart piece, originally performed by tenor Stan Watson, will be sung in Saturday’s performance by Juneau soprano Kathleen Wayne. Also on the program is the second movement of Leonard Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms,” featuring a solo by Sarah Penrose; the traditional spiritual “Ain’t Got Time to Die,” with a solo by Dan Wayne; Alexander Borodin’s Polovetsian Dances from the opera “Prince Igor;” Orff’s “O Fortuna” from the cantata “Carmina Burana,” among other works.
Though many of this year’s 73 participants are regulars who have worked with McGilvray for 20 years or more, there are also young faces in the crowd: soloist Penrose, for example, is 16 (with a voice that brought fellow singers to tears during Monday’s rehearsal at Holy Trinity Church). Kathleen and Dan Wayne, also soloists in this year’s concert, brought their two daughters, Anna and Nelli, ages 12 and 14, to participate in the festival with them this year. And JDHS seniors Sam Adam and Megan Wright are both participating in their third festival.
Adam, whose mother, Scarlett, is a festival participant and a JLO board member, said he had to be talked in to coming to the first one, a summer festival a few years ago, but after finding out what it was like needed no more persuasion, largely because of McGilvray.
“I love coming to this. There’s so much knowledge in that man you can’t spend five minutes with him without learning something,” Adam said.
Adam, who plays the tuba with the JDHS band, said McGilvray and Capelle’s obvious love for music comes across in all they do.
“I think that they come up here all the way from Texas because they love music so much, and they love to spread the love,” he said.
Simmons, a JLO board member who is one of a handful of people who have participated in every festival, said McGilvray brings a very positive approach to teaching, balancing criticism with practical tips that help singers improve, and inspiring confidence in beginners. She grew up singing in her family’s church choir, but said she realizes for others it takes a leap of faith to know you can do it.
“Everybody can sing,” she said. “We might not be Kathleen or Dan (Wayne), or Luciano Pavarotti. But everybody can sing. We just don’t think we can.”
Through the festivals, which are open to singers of all levels of ability, McGilvray gives people that faith, she said.
“You see people that come for the first time, and they’re kind of timid sometimes, and scared, and suddenly they’re off singing Holiday Pops and off singing with the Juneau Symphony, and they’re singing with Bruce (Simonson in the Juneau Bach Society). That’s wonderful.”
McGilvray, who earned his PhD at the Conservatory of Music at the University of Missouri in Kansas City, directs the choral and vocal department at Trinity Valley Community College in Athens, Texas, where he lives. He has been conducting since he was 16, working in schools and colleges across the country.
He was first invited to Juneau by two Juneau Lyric Opera members, Sandra Strandtmann and Caroline Garland, who were impressed by a workshop he led in Fairbanks and convinced him to try one here. McGilvray, who had never been to Juneau at that point, agreed.
“(That first year) we had 23 people and a lot of them couldn’t do much, had never done anything,” McGilvray said. “But they stuck with it.”
McGilvray and Capelle stuck with it too, adding a summer visit to their schedule about five years in. Now they come twice a year, every year, to lead Juneau voices in ensemble work, paving the way for participants to take part in other local arts groups the rest of the year.
Capelle, who accompanies the singers on piano and is a vocal coach along with McGilvray, said one of the joys for her in coming back after this many years is in seeing how far Juneau singers have come in that time.
“I’m glad that we’ve been at it 25 years because now it’s almost, like they say, ‘like buttah.’” She laughed. “It’s much easier, because they’re competent. They know how to do this art form, they know how to read and they know how to communicate what they don’t know, and where they need help. It’s not a matter of note pounding over and over again, they’ve got a greater facility. So I think that’s an accomplishment on their part.”
McGilvray agreed, adding that it is satisfying to know that the festival had an impact on Juneau, a community he has come to love.
“I had them raise their hands the other night and asked, ‘How many of you got your start singing in ensembles in Juneau through this festival and through what we’ve done,’ and probably 80 percent raised their hands,” McGilvray said. “And for me, that’s the exciting part. Coming and making music is one thing. But if one has a legacy or any kind of immortality, shall we say, it’s what lives after you, and what that work engenders. This work, it’s made a difference I think.”
know and go
What: Juneau Lyric Opera’s Mid-Winter Vocal Festival Concert
When: Saturday, Jan. 4 at 7:30 p.m.
Where: Thunder Mountain High School Auditorium
Details: Tickets are available at Hearthside books and at the JACC. Adult admission is $15, seniors and students are $10 .
For more, visit juneauopera.org/25th-anniversary-midwinter-festival.