Members of the Down East Singers recorded a holiday concert this fall in a hayfield in Cushing. Bay Chamber Concerts will share the concert at 2 p.m. Sunday on its YouTube channel. Courtesy of Down East Singers

On Sunday, Bay Chamber Concerts will present a virtual holiday concert featuring an array of midcoast singers and musicians that seemed like an impossible accomplishment not too long ago.

The prerecorded concert will feature members of the Down East Singers, the Bowdoin Chorus and other choristers, Halcyon String Quartet, members of the Midcoast Brass Quintet, and keyboardist Jennifer McIvor performing Schubert’s German Mass (sung in English), Bortniansky’s setting of the Lord’s Prayer (also in English), the African-American hymn “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and the spiritual “We Shall Overcome.” It airs free of charge at 2 p.m. Sunday on Bay Chamber’s YouTube Channel.

Anthony Antolini, artistic director of the Down East Singers, is surprised it’s happening at all. By summer, he had accepted that he would have to cancel the Christmas concert because of the pandemic. “All medical authorities I checked with were in agreement that there would be no safe way for people to sing inside,” he said. “We considered every possible angle, but singing is considered one of the riskiest activities in term of the aerosols that people expel. So I gave up on the idea.”

But his singers did not. They wanted to sing, and decided to find a way to safely present a prerecorded holiday concert. At first, they tried recording remotely and individually and then stitching their voices together through digital editing, but the process was clumsy. Instead, someone suggested they sing outside, spaced safely apart from one another, and enlist sound and video engineers to record their collective voices.

Antolini agreed to try.

Members of the Down East Singers perform in a field in Cushing, keeping far apart from one another with their singing sections marked by colored buoys. Courtesy of Down East Singers

“I own a 60-acre saltwater farm on the St. George River in Cushing, and I was haying at the time. So I cleared a beautiful spot on a hill overlooking the river and made a nice big singing circle,” he said.

They gathered on Sundays in the fall as weather permitted, standing apart at 12-foot intervals and all wearing masks. Antolini measured off the paces and marked the sections with lobster buoys – red for sopranos, blue for altos, yellow for tenors and green for the basses.

The Halcyon String Quartet was going to accompany the singers for Schubert’s mass, but the cool fall weather made it difficult for the string musicians to perform outside. Ultimately, the quartet recorded its contributions to the program indoors. Instead, Antolini recruited members of the Midcoast Brass Quintet to accompany the singers in the field. “I knew they could play outside,” he said. “We’ve all heard the Salvation Army brass band on the street.”

Anthony Antolini conducts the singers. Courtesy of Down East Singers

He transcribed the string parts for the Schubert’s mass for trumpet, French horn and alto, and McIvor brought along her electric keyboard – and a very long extension cord. “Between Jennifer and four brass players, we had a band that could do Schubert,” he said.

It won’t look or sound like a traditional holiday concert. Antolini chose music that reflects the year’s turmoil, and the entire program is dedicated to front-line medical heroes.

“We had a lot of fun with it,” Antolini said. “The whole thing is so wacky, and so completely not what an audience is used to hearing for a holiday concert. But this is 2020. There are no rules.”

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