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Brooklyn’s Long-Running Community Chorus

The Brooklyn Contemporary Chorus is one of the borough’s longest-running community musical groups.ÿ Today, after 35 years, it is alive and well and rehearses every Monday from September to June at Cadman Memorial Congregational Church at Lafayette and Clinton Avenue in Clinton Hill.ÿ The current director, Aaron Williams, is well-loved by the members and challenges them to high-level performances of choral music ranging from classical to modern pop.
The origin of the name, Brooklyn Contemporary Chorus, seems lost in antiquity.ÿ The charter members that are still active in the chorus (Pete Beveridge, Leslie Bilancia, Gwen Finch, Thelma Jack and Evelyn Whitaker) might chuckle at the thought of being contemporary but the timelessness of the chorus’s music and the ebullient spirit of the chorus’s members make the name indeed apt.
In the fall of 1970, local residents Parker Jones and Velma Johnson proposed forming a community chorus.ÿ The response was enthusiastic and James A. Simms volunteered to lead the chorus.ÿ This was a coup because Jim was no wannabe stick-waver.ÿ He was, in fact, an experienced and immensely talented organist, choir director and conductor who had worked at St. George’s Church and Riverside Church and, at the time, was serving at Trinity Church, Wall Street, where he shared in the direction of that parish’s extensive music program, including a noonday recital series and worship services both at Trinity and St. Paul’s Chapel.ÿ He was also the choral director of the Bell System Chorus.
ÿOn Sunday afternoon, January 23, 1971, after months of hard work, BCC made its formal debut, presenting a concert at Emmanuel Baptist Church featuring portions of Handel’s Messiah.ÿ The chorus went on, under Jim Simms’ guidance, to give two or three concerts a year for the next twenty years.ÿ From the beginning, the music presented by the chorus was challenging, including works such as Brahms’s Liebeslieder Waltzes, Randall Thompson’s Frostiana, Mozart’s Requiem Mass in D Minor, Zoltan Kodaly’s Missa Brevis and, not to neglect the lighter side of things, Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado.
ÿBetsy Lewin, noted author and an early member, remembers the 1975 Mikado concert held in Pratt’s Memorial Hall with the chorus dressed in colorful kimonos, or versions of.ÿ On the way home, she and her husband Ted spotted a parakeet in a bush.ÿ They rescued it and named it Yum-Yum, after a character in the Mikado.
ÿIn 1992, Simms’ church commitments took him to New Jersey, making weekly evening trips into Brooklyn difficult.ÿ Fortune again smiled on the Chorus, bringing Aaron Williams as its new director.ÿ Aaron, in addition to his formal schooling in music, has worked as a free-lance singer, accompanist, conductor and composer/arranger.ÿ He was and is an instructor of vocal music at a middle school in the South Bronx, and still finds the energy to lead the Chorus, as well as being accompanist for the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church’s Inspirational Ensemble and Director of Music for Cadman Church.ÿ His work with the Chorus has included Mendelssohn’s Elijah, Schubert’s Mass in G, Rossini’s Stabat Mater, Faure, Verdi and Mozart’s respective Requiems, Handel’s Messiah, Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance, Trial By Jury and Iolanthe, Moses Hogan’s settings of traditional and contemporary spirituals, and many other traditional and contemporary works.
ÿAlthough BCC employs professional singers and musicians as soloists and accompanists, there is no chorus member audition.ÿ A love and ear for music are the only requirements for membership.
ÿÿFor more information about the Chorus’s programs, or about joining the Chorus, call 718-855-5519, 718-953-8727, or visit the Chorus’s website.

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