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What music can do: A new documentary focuses on the Chorus of Westerly

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It’s all there: The glorious musical performances of choral masterworks. The multiple international tours. The community-spirited Summer Pops. The gleeful children’s camp. The long-standing, familial relationships.

The Chorus of Westerly has a rich, six-decade history, and that history — of music, of fellowship, of friendship, of accomplishment — is detailed in a new documentary.

The chorus commissioned the movie six years ago, and former chorus member Caswell Cooke, of Westerly, created and directed the piece.

“Mostly Music: The Journey of the Chorus of Westerly” boasts interviews with people from the group’s past and present — including Founding Music Director George Kent and current Music Director Andrew Howell — and it showcases an amazing range of video clips and photographs from various eras. It explores, too, how the intergenerational Chorus of Westerly is a unique organization.

It’s already earned accolades: An earlier preview version of “Mostly Music” received a finalist nomination in the short films category at the New York Film & TV Festival.

The final, one-hour production premiered on Aug. 30 in a screening at the Misquamicut Drive-In, and starting on Oct. 4, it will be available for free on YouTube and the chorus’ website through at least June 2021.

Chorus Executive Director Ryan Saunders says that while the chorus won’t be giving any concerts for a while because of the pandemic, with the film, “we can perform a little differently — in everybody’s homes, safely.”

‘One of the best in the world’

Cooke and chorus leaders independently had the idea of creating a documentary about The Chorus of Westerly.

“It’s just a life-changing organization, and I thought the story needs to be told,” says Cooke, who sang in the chorus, as did both of his children.

Its quality, too, makes it a worthy subject: he says, “It’s a world-touring chorus, and this organization stands out as one of the best in the world.”

The Chorus of Westerly is unusual in that it has kids as young as 8 sing with adults at every performance. And this isn’t simplified music but classic masterworks.

Cooke asked Chris Walsh to come onboard the documentary; Walsh, who lives in Westerly, runs the videography company Chris Walsh Productions. Cooke did the interviews and came up with the timeline and ideas, and Walsh filmed. The two of them then sat down and edited it.

“Mostly Music” opens with a drone camera shot swooping along the water, coming up over the Watch Hill Lighthouse, as the chorus sings Gjeilo’s “Dark Night of the Soul” on the soundtrack. A quick fade to a drone shot floating over downtown Westerly is followed by these words onscreen, setting up the theme of what is to follow: “The Chorus of Westerly harnesses the power of music to transform lives and nourish the soul of the community.”

A camera then zooms down the center aisle of the chorus’ George Kent Performance Hall as a concert begins: singers pack the risers, the audience applauds, and Howell bows.

“We planned that shot because we knew we only had one take,” Cooke says. “Nothing was filmed specifically for the documentary. We filmed the chorus doing everything that they normally do. I had this idea for the first shot, and we had one chance to make it happen, and it turned out nice.”

Starting with the 2015 Summer Pops, the filmmakers followed the chorus for a year. They sat in on all the concerts, went with the children on their week-long chorus camp at Camp Ogontz in New Hampshire — all of the chorus’ activities. Then came the interviews.

While filmmakers usually put together a movie and then add the soundtrack, the reverse was true for Cooke and Walsh. Cooke says, “We started with the soundtrack, and we edited to the music so everything cuts to the music and crescendos or ebbs and flows to the music. That’s really where Chris Walsh’s genius comes in.”

“Mostly Music” has a wealth of archival material, some of which was easier to come by than others. Oren Jacoby, who went on to become an Oscar-nominated filmmaker, did a video in the 1970s about the chorus’ performance of Bach’s Mass in B minor that was accessible. Other people sent photos through social media.

Visuals were necessary to illustrate any remembrances.

“Someone would tell a story, and (Walsh) would say, ‘Where’s the visual evidence?’” Cooke says. 

For instance, when Kent spoke about the first Summer Pops held on Westerly’s post office steps in 1981, Cooke and Walsh went to The Westerly Sun archives in search of photos. Sure enough, there was a picture of that inaugural Pops on the newspaper’s front page. When they talked with state Sen. Dennis Algiere, who has old Westerly Sun slides, though, they found even more of a treasure trove.

“He went to his archives and pulled out that date, and there were all these undeveloped negatives sitting there from the first Summer Pops — never seen the light of day from 40 years ago. So we got them developed, and we used them,” Cooke says.

Serving as inspiration

As for the message of “Mostly Music,” Saunders refers to something Howell mentions in the film: “We want other people to realize they can do this in their community, too — maybe not right now with COVID — and it doesn’t necessarily have to be choral arts, but you can use music as a mechanism of community development,” Saunders says.

Howell elaborates, “It’s wonderful that we are a unique and individual organization, but at the same time, when I think about the good that has come out of this and the amount of growth this has allowed for all of the multiple thousands of people who have come through the organization, there’s no reason why other people shouldn’t be doing this. One of the ideas is to say, hey, set the bar high and reach for it. There’s no reason not to be trying to really involve the community in this way and bringing adults and kids together to work on something beyond themselves, that no individual person can do on their own, but as a group working together toward this common goal, you can accomplish some really incredible things.”

They also want people in the community to see it since, Saunders says, “The 60-plus history of the chorus has been successful because so many people around here have invested in us, both with their time and their support, as a singer or an audience member … All of that has built up this really interesting thing that shouldn’t happen in Westerly, but it does.”

Kent was pleased with the documentary, saying he thought the filmmakers did a really good job and managed to touch on every aspect of the chorus, which is a tricky thing because it’s so multifaceted.

Cooke says that, among his reasons for wanting to do the documentary, his personal one was that “George Kent is one of the greatest influences in my life, as he was for so many hundreds, dare I say thousands, of other people over the last 60-some-odd years. I wanted to tell his story, too. I wanted to make this for him, too.”

Kent retired in 2012 after 53 seasons, and Howell, who had sung in The Chorus of Westerly from when he was a child, was hired to succeed him. Cooke said he also wanted to show “that the chorus was turned over to Andrew, and he has taken it to another level. The chorus has survived past its founding director and flourished. There are so many organizations that live and die by the leader, and you never know. I mean, the guy (Kent) was in charge 55 years; you didn’t know if the thing would fall apart when he walked away. So this also shows this transition, and it’s an organic transition — transitioning to a kid who grew up in the chorus, studied under Mr. Kent and has that same kind of foundation in the chorus and that actually inspired him and then he actually took the thing over. That’s a great story, too.”

 

IF YOU WATCH 

What: "Mostly Music: The Journey of the Chorus of Westerly"

Where: YouTube and chorus' website

When: Starting Oct. 4; it is expected to remain available until at least June 2021

Cost: Free

For more info: www.chorusofwesterly.org

 

Money matters

The Chorus of Westerly documentary "Mostly Music" cost about $70,000, according to Executive Director Ryan Saunders.

Nearly $41,000 of that was to pay for music rights and musicians.

The film was pretty much finished by 2017, but the chorus had to put it on hold. The primary reason for the delay was to allow time to raise money to pay for the rights to the music used in the documentary and to compensate the musicians whose past performances were used in the film.

The chorus, which has always hired union orchestral players for concerts, had to determine which musicians are in each scene, how much time they are there, and whether they are seen and heard or just heard. All told, about 100 musicians are in the documentary.

"These are wonderful players who in many cases have been with us for many years, and we wanted to make sure they were properly compensated," Saunders says, noting that the chorus follows the union rules.

Based on the rates set by the union, the American Federation of Musicians, the total compensation to musicians was just under $36,000. To give you some perspective, that's about the cost the chorus incurs by staging its Christmas Pops concert each year — but, in this case, no ticket money would be coming in from the movie to offset the expenditure.

The chorus had started raising money when the pandemic hit. As it became apparent The Chorus of Westerly wouldn't be performing for a long time because of the coronavirus, Music Director Andrew Howell and Saunders approached the chorus Board of Directors, saying that, with the documentary, they had an artistic offering to give the community right now — they just had to make sure they could finish the fundraising and compensate everyone appropriately.

"We can get a paycheck to about 100 orchestra players we would normally be hiring for Summer Pops and all the concerts we cancelled — we can actually give them a service," Saunders said.

And they did, paying everyone and making a contribution to the union pension fund on each players' behalf.

 

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