Striking the right chord with the Alexandria Harmonizers

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Striking the right chord with the Alexandria Harmonizers
The Alexandria Harmonizers performing in 2014 at the 70th Anniversary of D-Day in Normandy, France. (Courtesy photo)
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By Olivia Anderson | [email protected]

Experiencing an Alexandria Harmonizers rehearsal is like experiencing the burst of energy that comes after that first sip of morning coffee: invigorating, infectious and instant. Yet unlike coffee, this vigor is fueled not by caffeine, but by the voices of chorus members that slice through the air and the ebullient direction of conductor Joe Cerutti.

Wagging his hands with animated precision, Cerutti looks completely in his element as he leads a group of about 30 men in person – and several on Zoom – through the catalog of songs they will perform at the upcoming Rappahannock Concert Series. They halt every so often to tighten a verse here or sharpen a key there, taking notes and making changes as they go. All the while, an engrossed audience watches eagerly.

This scene is a typical Tuesday evening at the Scottish Rite Temple, and it’s immediately easy to see why the barbershop men’s chorus has been around for nearly 75 years. Almost entirely run by volunteers for the majority of that time, the Harmonizers have accumulated 19 international medals, including four championship gold medals, and won the 2018 Greater Washington D.C. Area Choral Excellence Ovation Award for Best a Cappella Ensemble. Most recently, after a successful financial year, the Harmonizers were able to hire a general manager for the first time in their history.

Since 2007, artistic director Joe Cerutti has helmed the chorus with his leadership and exuberant energy. (Photo/Olivia Anderson)

Cerutti has served as the Harmonizers’ artistic director since 2007, and many of the men have been members for even longer. Across the board, each person involved holds a deep reverence for a group that started as a mere seedling idea and, over the years, gradually transformed into a community staple.

“The music certainly attracts you to it, but the people, the friendships, the fellowship that is created in the culture of barbershopping is something you just don’t find in other forms of singing,” Cerutti said.

Roots to branches

The Alexandria Harmonizers, more formally known as the Alexandria Chapter of the Barbershop Harmony Society, were officially founded on June 19, 1948.

The group’s conception, however, spans back to the winter of 1947, when Washington D.C. barbershop member Dean Snyder and Gene Barnwell, director of the Alexandria Department of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Activities at the time, met by chance at a bus stop in a bad rainstorm. Snyder offered Barnwell a ride, and the two immediately bonded over their shared love of music. Together, they rallied enough singers to eventually charter a new barbershop chapter in Alexandria, and with Barnwell’s help, the chapter came to be supported by the city’s parks and recreation department.

The originally nameless chorus was referred to as the Alexandria Harmonizers in a 1948 Alexandria Gazette article to describe “the new group in town.” The name stuck, and so did the group. Although the Harmonizers began with 18 men, the minimum number required to receive a Society charter document signed by Society founder OC Cash, they quickly grew to around 60 members and hovered at that number for several years.

Then, in the 1960s, the group grew at first to 100 and then 200, making it the largest in the Society. To date, more than 1,200 members have joined the chapter since its founding. Jack Pitzer, the Harmonizers’ historian who has been with the group since 1965, has directly seen the group change and expand. He’s worn many hats over the years, taking on various leadership roles and singing on the risers up until recently.

“I’ve been at all the jobs in the chapter at one point in time, it seems like,” Pitzer said, summing up the progression he’s witnessed as “very exciting.”

“Our chapter has grown from a small group of guys that assembled at a small temple at Durant Recreation Center on North Cameron Street in 1948, to winning the national competition for choruses four times with [more than] 100 guys,” Pitzer said.

Several men have become district presidents, board members, Society presidents and certified judges. Throughout the years, the Harmonizers have built up an impressive roster of performances, including at the Kennedy Center, Carnegie Hall, the Supreme Court, the Great Wall of China and in Normandy for the 70th anniversary of D-Day.

The chorus has collaborated with Harry Connick Jr. and Kristin Chenoweth and performed for the Obamas. It has also rubbed elbows with astronaut John Glenn, who took the Harmonizers’ album into outer space with him, making the group the first and only barbershop chorus to orbit the Earth.

Three Harmonizers sing a solo in preparation for an upcoming performance with the Rappahannock Concert Series. (Photo/Olivia Anderson)

While many factors can be attributed to the Harmonizers’ growth and accomplishments, Pitzer points specifically to leadership, administration and ambition as key ingredients.

“We do attract young men who like to sing well and like good music, who put on fantastic shows. We have a reputation within the Barbershop Harmony Society of being administratively strong, singing well and having a fantastic visual performance as well as a musical part,” Pitzer said. “We’ve grown, but we continue to grow.”

Brian Lynch, public relations manager with the Barbershop Harmony Society, which was founded in 1938, attributed the group’s success to various leaders throughout the years, many of whom were integral not only to the group but to the Society as a whole. He pointed to the 1980s and 90s as the peak years during which the Harmonizers were almost predominately internally focused and winning award after award.

“This is one of the premiere barbershop chapters in the nation. They have, across 70 years, contributed world champion choruses, world champion quartets, international presidents, visionaries,” Lynch said. “It sounds like I’m laying it on thick, but this is one of the most storied, accomplished barbershop groups in our history.”

Inside out

When Cerutti became artistic director in January 2007, he was a wide-eyed 25-year-old with a list of goals – many of them revolving around continuing to compete and score as high as possible within the barbershop circuit. The hope, he said, was to excel internally and potentially secure a fifth gold medal for the chorus.

But several years ago, something changed. The Harmonizers realized they were bringing the largest chorus and highest quality performances out of the community, so they decided to make some adjustments.

“Over the years, that goal has shifted significantly from our focus being to excel in our little barbershop bubble that we thrive in to, now, our focus for the last five to seven years or so has been to better connect with our community,” Cerutti said.

Lynch called attention to the Harmonizers’ growth and maturity as an organization, claiming that the group is only about one of five in the nation that serves as a model of a successful arts organization and arts presence. He said that the chorus’ recent shift to community outreach is just as significant as their hard-won internal fame, only in another way.

“That kind of fame is fleeting, in a way. What they’re doing as an organization now is so much broader,” Lynch said. “If you win a gold medal in the barbershop organization, barbershoppers know that and nobody else does. But when you become a force in the arts community in D.C., you’re making a completely different kind of impact.”

These days, the Harmonizers often perform in the Alexandria community, singing in places like Market Square, various retirement villages, the George Washington Masonic National Memorial and Fort Ward Park. This summer, the group is slated to perform at Lee District Park as part of the Fairfax County Park Authority Summer Concert Series.

But progress requires hard work, and Cerutti said that transcending the past 70 years by shifting the focus from internal work to community outreach has been a difficult but worthwhile challenge. The transition has included fewer of the Harmonizers singing on stage to the audience and more opportunities for singing together. The group has curated one-off events for community members to participate in, regardless of whether or not they are a member or have attended prior rehearsals.

Jack Pitzer, the Harmonizers’ longtime historian, has been with the group since 1965. (Photo/Olivia Anderson)

“[We’ve created events] where we’ll facilitate singing for a night, whether you can match pitch, whether you want to commit to doing it on a weekly basis, but there are people in our community who need what we specialize in and we need to lower the barrier of entry for them to actually participate and engage in those sorts of things,” Cerutti said.

Cerutti also noted that the COVID-19 pandemic played a significant role in solidifying the shift toward community engagement, because it forced the group to relinquish its old performance identity. Staying at home meant more virtual performances, in which the Harmonizers performed various holiday medleys and collaborated with a Seattle chorus in an event called “Coast to Coast.”

The Harmonizers also learned to rely on the community to stay afloat financially, and the community relied more on them for respite in what Cerutti called a “symbiotic relationship.”

“During the last two years, we said, ‘Hey, if we can’t exist as that primary identity that we’ve existed [as] for over 70 years as a performance ensemble, we have to pivot our identity,’” Cerutti said. “We decided to change that identity from being just a performance ensemble to becoming a community asset.”

Cerutti said that the objective during the pandemic was lifting up the community through song amid an extremely trying, uncertain period of time.

“Our job is to remind the community that we exist, not just as a performance ensemble but as a community asset that specializes in the intrinsic benefits of singing together in harmony and that’s really something that everyone in our community can and should benefit from,” Cerutti said.

Standing out, standing up

The Alexandria Harmonizers, and barbershop music in general, is made up of four-part a cappella harmonies: lead, tenor, baritone and bass. While many different genres can be sung as barbershop music if styled correctly, Cerutti said the goal lately has been to sing songs that are recognizable and relevant to connect better with audiences.

For example, the chorus is currently planning for a fall performance filled with classics like “With a Little Help from My Friends” by the Beatles and “The Circle of Life” from “The Lion King.”

When it comes to weekly rehearsals, Executive Director Randall Eliason said communication to members goes out in advance regarding what the chorus will be rehearsing during any given week. Currently, the group is actively working on about 10 to 12 songs. Every member has online recordings, or “learning tracks” of the music, learn their respective parts.

“The goal is for the guys to be doing a lot of that work at home, studying the music, listening to the recordings, coming to rehearsal prepared to then really fine tune it under Joe’s direction,” Eliason said. “So, there’s a lot of preparation that takes place outside of rehearsal before the guys get ready to come on Tuesday night.”

Although this description of preparation seems relatively standard for any singing group, it’s absorbing the palpable energy of an in-person rehearsal that explains why the Harmonizers have been a mainstay for all these years. In Lynch’s eyes, what separates the Harmonizers from other groups is their combination of musical ability and ambitious vision.

The Alexandria Harmonizers are intergenerational, spanning from men in their teens to 80s. (Photo/Olivia Anderson)

“Musically, they’re more adventurous than many. They are unswerving and steadfast in their devotion to barbershop harmony, and they have a lot greater breadth from that too. [They’re] doing ‘Ave Maria’ and [they’re] doing ‘42nd Street,’ ‘I Am Harvey Milk;’ they aggressively seek out a wide range of choral activity,” Lynch said.

As rehearsal wraps up, chorus members mix and mingle with one another, the soundscape altering from that of tight four-part harmonies to a cacophony of friends catching up with one another. Pitzer says that some of the guys plan on getting together for what’s known as “Afterglow,” wherein they all funnel into a home several chorus members bought, fondly referred to as the Harmo House, generally after rehearsals or performances.

The house is full of refreshments, snacks and singing until after midnight.

“Even after a two-and-a-half-hour rehearsal?” an audience member asks Pitzer.

“Yes, ma’am,” he replies without missing a beat.

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