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Creating Magical, Musical Moments

By Pamela Oldham
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, December 28, 2003; Page LZ01

When Leesburg pediatrician C. Damon Moore answered a local ad and auditioned for the Loudoun-based Master Singers of Virginia last year, he had never actually heard the choral ensemble perform. Moore thought he was trying out for "a little community a cappella singing group." What the gifted tenor/countertenor heard at his first rehearsal stunned him.

"It was like [signing up for] regular soccer but showing up to practice and suddenly realizing you're on the traveling team," said Moore, 39, a Rhodes scholar. "I had no idea how fantastic this group was."

Jones conducts the 29-member Master Singers of Virginia during a recent rehearsal in Ashburn. (Photos Tracy A. Woodward -- The Washington Post)

The Master Singers of Virginia is among the state's finest choral ensembles and one of the best-kept secrets in Loudoun County. Had he heard the group first, Moore said, he would have been too intimidated to audition.

His reaction to the ensemble's quality comes as no surprise to those who have heard the group's flawless performances, primarily of 20th- and 21st-century choral works.

Almost all of the ensemble's 29 singers are county residents, and they range in age from 19 to 69. By day, they toil in professions decidedly far afield from their work with the Master Singers -- law, medicine, high tech and government, to name a few. However, each singer's background reveals a longstanding passion for creating beautiful music.

Moore, for example, sang with the University of Mississippi Concert Singers as an undergraduate. Cindy Jenkins, 28, a soprano from Potomac Falls, studied voice and piano as a child and earned a music degree from James Madison University before joining Volunteer Fairfax as its development director.

Tenor Karl Jensen, 35, of Potomac Falls is a senior manager in Raytheon Co.'s space systems division. He performed with the U.S. Naval Academy Glee Club before flying combat missions in Iraq and Somalia.

Despite differences, the group's members are singularly focused on a common goal when it comes to creating living art, music based upon a natural instrument -- the human voice. They are dedicated to singing music intellectually challenging, emotionally powerful and spiritually profound.

"It's not easy to explain the way they perform, but it's in the old, traditional European style, I think," said Ralf Bode of Great Falls, who attended a recent concert in Ashburn. Bode and his wife, Jutta, who are from Germany, watch the newspapers to see where the group will perform next. They have attended four concerts this year.

"It's so blended, not divided, yet you hear the single voices, too," Jutta Bode said. "The modulation is wonderful . . . it's just unbelievable how they sing, and the director is so engaged."

The group was founded by Erik Reid Jones, 32, of Tacoma Park, also artistic director and conductor. He was awarded a bachelor's of music degree, summa cum laude, in vocal music from the University of Massachusetts and a master's of music degree in choral conducting from the University of Cincinnati.

Jones, a prolific choral composer with more than 20 works to his credit, is pursuing a doctoral degree in choral conducting at the University of Maryland. He teaches and conducts throughout the Washington area.

Jones said great choral music should be found not only in the city but also everywhere people want to hear it. Most of all, he wants more Loudouners to know about the Master Singers of Virginia.

"Come, be a part of this," he said.

Watching Jones at a pre-concert rehearsal is like catching a glimpse of a master painter putting the final touches on a fine portrait. As the group practices works to be performed that night, Jones requests a slight alteration in inflection here, a more spirited finish there.

When he asks that a single note in one work be accentuated "just so," the group responds by repeating the note, seemingly polishing it to a fine luster. Jones thanks the group and moves on to the next piece. Throughout the practice, he and the singers engage in lighthearted banter.

"We are a tight group in many ways," Jenkins said. "Because we sing works that require close harmonies, we are constantly working as a team to achieve technical precision. But beyond blending musically, making music together over the years has brought us all lasting and special relationships."

When the concert begins, Jones conducts as if guiding the singers on a spiritual journey. By the looks on their faces, they clearly enjoy the adventure.

After explaining to the audience the origins of the next piece, Jones turns to face the ensemble. He raises his hands and pauses. Eyes fixed on him, the singers ready themselves, silently drawing in fresh air, awaiting their cue. Their anticipation and excitement are almost palpable.

Jones nods, and beautiful music surges forth. The work is mature and unfamiliar. The sound is textured, complex and pure. Notes held in unison continue almost indefinitely. The music envelops the audience and resonates physically and emotionally.

On stage, Moore said the art he and his fellow singers create sometimes overwhelms him, too. So as not to draw attention from the work, he said he doesn't wipe his eyes when tears come. "I have to keep singing," he said.

Master Singers of Virginia's concert calendar: Wednesday, First Night Leesburg, 6, 8 and 10 p.m.; March 6, St. James' Episcopal Church, Leesburg, 8 p.m.; March 7, Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Alexandria, 4 p.m.; March 13, St. Peter's Episcopal Church, Purcellville, 8 p.m.; March 14, Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, College Park, Md., 3 p.m., with the University of Maryland Chamber Singers.

For tickets, information and additional concert dates, call Gretchen Upholt at 703-655-7809 or visit www.msva.org

2003 The Washington Post Company
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