Director Marks His Tenth Year Leading Chorus


In the mid-1950s in a small New Jersey town, a four-year-old boy named Peter Boak asked his parents if he could learn to play the piano.

A musical journey was starting - one that five decades later would help blend the voice of 125 Vineyarders into glorious choral sound.

On Monday and Tuesday at the Old Whaling Church in Edgartown, the Island Community Chorus, directed by Mr. Boak, will perform its annual holiday concert. The performances start at 7:30 p.m.

This also marks the 10th year that Mr. Boak and the chorus stretched out from a group that would perform Handel's Messiah at Christmas into a year-round endeavor with spring, summer and December performances.

In tribute to the Vineyard's support of the chorus over the past decade, Mr. Boak said, no donations will be asked. "We're giving this to the community for a thank you," he said.

Mr. Boak and the chorus are devoted to each other - dedicating two hours on Monday nights through most of the year to learning and practice.

For Mr. Boak, 55, who lives in Oak Bluffs, the basic challenge remains the same.

"How do you take this group of willing souls and make them into an ensemble? To make some sophisticated music, to take them from the plane they're on and take them to a higher plane?"

He only asks that they love music, that they be willing to work hard, and that they can hit pitch. Over the years, only a couple of people have come up short on the last requirement.

"It's not an auditioned group," Mr. Boak said of the chorus. "It's not a professional group."

But it is a group that has grown in the complexity of music that it has taken on. The chorus has progressed from standard fare such as Messiah to Rutter's Gloria, slated for performance next week, whose relatively straightforward melodies are laid over a shifting, complex rhythmic base.

The chorus, Mr. Boak said, has risen to the challenge. In a recent practice performance, he said, "They did brilliantly with it."

His own musical and choral direction skills have been years in the making. At the age of eight, his parents decided he was old enough to start taking piano lessons. His teacher also was the organist at the local church, and the director of its choir, in which he started singing.

After his teacher's death, Mr. Boak, then 18, started directing the church choir. The minister suggested that he study at Westminster Choir College in Princeton, N.J., about an hour away, and return home during the week to work with the church choir.

For Mr. Boak, who pretty much was waiting to get through high school, the musical immersion of Westminster "was the best thing that had happened to me."

Following graduation, he taught music at an Episcopal day school in Lousiana, picked up a master's degree in sacred music at Southern Methodist University, and went on to direct music at a Presbyterian church in New Jersey.

By 1993, he was ready for a sabbatical, and headed for the Vineyard, where he had been a lifelong and fourth-generation summer visitor.

The seven-month sabbatical ended up as a 12-year-stay that has yet to end. He did temporary work. He went from a filing clerk at Edgartown National Bank to managing the bank's operations center. Four years ago, he was hired as the music teacher at the Tisbury School.

When he arrived on the Vineyard, he also started playing the organ at Grace Episcopal Church in Vineyard Haven. The church also hosted an annual Messiah concert. Hence the genesis of what would become the Island Community Chorus.

Chorus members have praised Mr. Boak for his affirmation and his patience during their efforts. Experience has shown him, he said, that a positive approach works better.

"When I was a high school kid, I had a temper," Mr. Boak said. "Losing your temper doesn't work. It's not a good thing."

He compares the chorus to a musical instrument, and just as an instrument should not be treated badly, nor should a chorus. "If you're constantly beating up on them, you're going to destroy it," he said.

The Island chorus, he said, has evolved to the point where the members are more demanding of themselves than he is.

They also watch his face and his hand motions carefully. A chorus member once told the Gazette: "The precision of the music is channeled through his body and his expression."

For his part, Mr. Boak avoids flailing, his controlled motions and expressions allowing the chorus members to focus on the nuances of the music.

He is appreciative of the musicians who have accompanied the chorus, especially pianist L. Garrett Brown.

And he is appreciative of the chorus, the clerks and bankers and retired nurses and other Vineyard residents who come together in their love of sung music.

He recalls a performance several years ago, of Rutter's Requiem. The audience, he said, "was just breathless at the end."