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Coram composer to conduct his music at Gettysburg

He stood next to a wooden piano inside the West Islip church, his right hand waving a conductor's baton, his left tapping musical notes in the air.

Directed by composer Richard Fuchs, a choir rehearsed familiar words: "Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation conceived in liberty . . ."

Fuchs, of Coram, set those lyrics -- from Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address -- to an original composition to be performed by 150 singers on Saturday in Gettysburg for the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg and Lincoln's address.

Nearly 20,000 people are expected at commemoration events this week, local tourism officials said. Fuchs, 73, said he hopes listeners take away from the performance a "greater appreciation for this country and what we've gone through.

"The Emancipation Proclamation and the Civil War answered the question of what we wanted to be," he said. "It's taken 150 years for us to realize that objective, and it's still not 100 percent."

At a recent rehearsal at Westminster United Presbyterian Church, Fuchs instructed more than 15 members from the Babylon Chorale and Stony Brook-based Harbormen Barbershop Chorus who will perform in Gettysburg. "Please stand and do it ethereal," he commands. "It just evolves. It oozes!"

Over two hours, singers adjusted to Fuchs' insights: Absolute silence after one pause, one phrase sung softer, another louder.

Joanne Pedian, a soprano from North Bellmore, said she was excited to perform in Gettysburg.

"What I'm hoping is that the words and the music that we're singing take on an extra meaning," said Pedian, 59.

"They're not just words, but you know, through the music we can really communicate the spirit and . . .especially with the Gettysburg Address, add a little different dimension to it."Mark Blanchard, principal at Gettysburg Area High School, which has 100 students singing with Long Island and Philadelphia performers during the concert, said Fuchs' work transforms the words for students.

"So many of us drive past the spot where this happened," he said of the battle site. "That has a con, in that often times those things start to become part of the white noise of our daily existence . . . so introducing this through a new medium like a song . . . reinvents it for us."

The performance, to be held in the school's 1,700-seat auditorium, also offers students an opportunity "to engage with a real flesh-and blood composer," said Blanchard.

Fuchs, a U.S. Army veteran and retired real estate license school owner, started composing in the early 1960s.

He was drawn to the Gettysburg Address as a child and tried to memorize the words for a college assignment by setting them to music.

"I spent the whole weekend trying and I couldn't do it," he said. "There was no rhyme and no meter."

Fuchs returned to the historical document in 1977. He published his composition through Belwin Mills after working with Centereach High School students to sing the piece on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1983, for which he worked with local congressmen to secure a permit.

Frank Imperiale, the former choral and theater arts director at Centereach High School, conducted that performance while Fuchs played piano.

"It was just an experience of a lifetime," said Imperiale, now an assistant principal at Oyster Bay High School. "It's one thing to hear from your musical director; it's a step beyond when you hear comments and suggestions from the composer that heard the music in his head . . . it made [Lincoln's] words come alive."

Fuchs led choirs again in 1993 on the Mall in Washington D.C., in 2009 for the 100th anniversary of Lincoln's Birthday and in 2012 at the National Portrait Gallery at the request of the Smithsonian Institution.

Greg Davis, 63, a tenor from Deer Park, who sang in 1993, said he expected emotions "to be pouring out" this time.

"It's just a very significant anniversary," Davis said. "I think there's going to be a lot of emotion singing this, and just the idea that you can get together with so many different people from so many backgrounds."

At each of his performances, singers volunteered and paid their own way, Fuchs said.

"I'm not doing it for money," Fuchs said. "I'm doing it because I have a love of music and a tremendous love of this country, and I think if we can celebrate this country with music . . . that's one of the finest things we can do."

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