After 20 years of nurturing her children's choir and watching it grow, Maria Belva will pass the baton to another director this month.
The Peterborough Children’s Choir, founded by Maria Belva and David Vernier in 1997, was created to give young singers the opportunity to develop their voices while learning the fundamentals: musicianship, music reading and performance among them.
Since then the choir has grown to nearly 100 singers in grades 2 through 12, in five different groups: Trebles and Keene Youth Chorus (grades 2 through 4); Choristers (grades 5 through 8); Elm City Singers (grades 5 through 8) and Cecilia Ensemble (grades 9 through 12). The Cecelia Ensemble travels to Europe every other year for a concert tour – next, for Belva's last tour with the ensemble, the group will perform in the Czech Republic in 2018. Together, they are the Grand Monadnock Youth Choirs.
To honor Belva's work and welcome new artistic director, Esther Rhoades, there will be two concerts this month, the first, this Saturday, May 13, at Keene State College's Redfern Arts Center and the second, Sunday, May 21, at the Peterborough Town House. Titled "In Endless Song," the concerts will feature works by Gerald Finzi, Nick Page and David Vernier, as well as classical pieces by Schubert and Handel. Also in the program is a song by a composer Karel Vrba, who was imprisoned in the Terezín concentration camp and formed a boy's chorus there during World War II.
For the finale of the Peterborough Concert, dozens of alumni will join the five ensembles in singing a commissioned piece by Jim Papoulis and another piece beloved by the choir by the same composer, "Give Us Hope." Former Cecilia Ensemble members will also join current members in their performance of "How Can I Keep from Singing?" by Jane Fjeldsted.
Belva remembers there were 20 children in the choir at the first concert. In those early days, the group performed two concerts a year and has increased to four annual concerts as of three years ago.
"Some of the people who've sung with me are now in their 30s with their own children," said Belva, who is moving to Portland, Maine.
Belva began preparing Rhoades for her departure two years ago. Rhoades, who taught music at ConVal Regional High School and led the school chorus (she has a bachelor's in music and choral education) was a colleague of Belva's at Monadnock Waldorf High School.
"Maria does it all," said Rhoades, which is why it was decided to make Grand Monadnock Youth Choirs a nonprofit organization and have hired a managing director and fundraising consultant.
Rhoades asked Belva if she could start a chorus in Keene, which became Keene Youth Chorus in 2015. "There was so much need for a group like this," she said.
She returned the following year, this time to the board, to request creating a second group, which became Elm City Singers. Over the past two years, the choirs have doubled in size and span 16 towns.
The choir ensembles are popular with audiences, too – both winter concerts this past season were sold out. Together they've performed in a Peterborough Players musical, with Judy Collins at The Colonial Theatre in Keene, and with Raylynmor Opera, the Monadnock Chorus and Keene Chorale. Next, they plan to collaborate with the Chamber Singers of Keene and in Peterborough with the Monadnock Guild of Organists.
Three-quarters of the list of songs the choir will perform at the Keene and Peterborough concerts this month are written by contemporary and local composers (including Peterborough Children’s Choir co-founder David Vernier), some new to the choir ensembles and others performed previously.
"I'll be conducting a concert of my favorites," said Belva of the Peterborough concert, after which she will literally pass the baton to Rhoades. Rhoades will conduct the concert in Keene.
Belva will miss most working with children every week.
"When you're a teacher you watch children mature and grow," she said. "I start teaching these children when they're 7 and I have them in choir until they're 18. I love having that connection to these young people. They are the biggest love of my life besides my own children."
Rhoades knows she has big shoes to fill.
"Maria has done so much for our region," said Rhoades. "She's been able to foster a love of music and create a family that would otherwise not be a family. So many people have gone through her programs and are phenomenal musicians, but more importantly grow into people who affect change in the world and are confident and provide respectful spaces like we provide in rehearsal."
Belva also created a tuition scholarship for choral students Rhoades said will continue in her name.
"She wanted to provide this opportunity to every single child capable of making it into an audition," she said. Rhoades plans to carry on Belva's legacy with the choir ensembles.
"Moving forward I'm hoping to continue to do what we do best, which is teach children choral education, teamwork and civic responsibility by maintaining a commitment to local, national and international choral communities," she said.
The Grand Monadnock Youth Choirs will perform Saturday, May 13, at 3 p.m. at Alumni Recital Hall at Keene State College's Redfern Arts Center and Sunday, May 21, at the 20th anniversary celebration concert at 3 p.m. at the Peterborough Town House. Tickets are $5-$10 for both performances and can be ordered online at GrandMonadnockYouthChoirs.org. All former choir members are invited to join the festivities, which include a reunion reception on Saturday evening, May 20. To register, contact Belva at 924-2055 or visit GrandMonadnockYouthChoirs.org.