The Huntington Men's Chorus: Harmony for 61 years
It's the longest-running show in town, an ensemble that struck a chord with its first audience 61 years ago with a performance by 34 men who loved to sing.
It was 1949. World War II was a memory, "South Pacific" was a Broadway smash, Harry Truman occupied the Oval Office and the Huntington Men's Chorus was founded. Over the years, the chorus has become a local institution, its membership, not restricted to Huntington residents, is now 116 strong.
"It's still dominated by guys who just love to sing," says the group's president, Ken Kress, 64. "Some of us have been with the group for 20 or 30 years, and most of us are over 50."
With its theatrical lineup of singers decked out in black-tie-and-tux finery, the chorus wows its audiences with macho stage presence. Twice a year, the group performs two-hour concerts in formal attire to sold-out crowds. Audiences are drawn by the rich tenor, bass and baritone voices blending and harmonizing to a diverse range of pop classics, show tunes, ballads, with a smattering of rock and roll and operatic arias.
Al Hulse, 67, a baritone from Huntington who heads the HMC's advertising committee, says the two main concerts almost always play to a packed house in the 1,800-seat auditorium of Huntington High School. In July, the Huntington Arts Council features a free performance by the group as part of the summer festival in Huntington's Heckscher Park.
"We're flattered that attendance is so high, but we realize that we must stay current," says Peter Sullivan, 62, of Northport, a tenor and the group's music director. "We're making an effort to attract younger audiences as well as recruiting younger musical talent." While a majority of the chorus members are in the Act2 generation, a growing number of newcomers who pass the stringent auditions are in their 20s to 40s. Sullivan's library of music selection now includes Motown hits and tunes made famous by Elvis Presley and Queen.
For eight years, the chorus has awarded a $2,000 scholarship to a high school senior vocalist in the Town of Huntington. This year's choice, Sofia Riffaud, 17, a soprano from Cold Spring Harbor High School, is the first female winner.
The group's longevity has helped create a family tradition for second-generation member Tom Lavery, 60, of Huntington. He "got hooked on singing" as a boy. His father brought him to rehearsals and concerts where he sang with the group, he says. Both father and son served as presidents, and there have been several other father-son teams.
While the men's occupations encompass a wide range of skills, including firefighters, teachers, construction workers, attorneys, doctors and businessmen, they've bonded into a kind of fraternity in which fellowship is as important as their love of singing. "There's a high level of camaraderie; many of us have known each other for decades," Lavery says. "We help in any way we can when a member needs a helping hand, we sing at wakes for fellow members and their families. In fact, we're like an extended family."
Devotion to the chorus has spawned an in-house legend around member Albert Brisotti of Calverton, who attended weekly rehearsals and concerts while enduring dialysis treatments three times a week for eight years. "I enjoy singing, and they're a great bunch of guys; we get a lot of laughs," Brisotti says. A kidney transplant two years ago restored his health.
"Everyone [in the chorus] was there for me and my family," says Brisotti, 71, a retired certified public accountant. "Al [Hulse] is a CPA, too, and he even helped my wife with advice as she kept my business going during my illness."
For some members, especially those singers who serve as chorus officers and directors or are on special committees, dedication to the group is an enjoyable but time-consuming avocation. Aside from frequent business and planning meetings, there are weekly rehearsals, occasional appearances at local churches and synagogues, the annual July concert in the park, in addition to the showcase spring and winter concerts.
For the May 1 concert this year, Sullivan produced a tribute to singer/songwriter Harry Chapin, who had lived with his family in Huntington. Chapin's charity, Long Island Cares, is headed by his widow, Sandy Chapin. Nonperishable foods were collected at the door along with $1,000 in cash.
"Because Harry Chapin was a male singer, it was natural to adapt his music for a male group," Sullivan says. "But most choral music is written for coed voices, and it's difficult and expensive to find arrangements for the vocal ranges of an all-male chorus."
The spring concert also featured a solo by Kress, a bass from Huntington, who was accompanied by a small instrumental group. He performed "Mr. Tanner" a little known Chapin song about a Midwesterner who loved to sing while he worked.
"As the song goes, his friends urged him to make a try for the big time in New York City where he was panned by the critics," Kress explains. "He returned to his work and never sang again in public, but he could be heard singing late at night as he worked, just for his own enjoyment. It puts me in mind of our signature song, 'What Would I Do Without My Music?' We close every performance with it," he says. "I'm sure I speak for every man in the chorus. We all feel that after a bad day, the music is what we turn to."
Upcoming Huntington Men's Chorus concerts
July 1: Heckscher Park, Huntington, free, 8:30 p.m.
Dec. 4: Huntington High School Auditorium, admission $10, or $8 for seniors who buy tickets in advance from chorus members or through the Huntington Arts Council, 213 Main St., 631-271-8423.
For info about the scholarship: Write to the Huntington Men's Chorus, Box 763, Huntington, NY 11743.
To learn about joining: huntingtonmenschorus.com