Weston leads MCC winter concert

Finding an anchor in ‘Safe Harbor’

By Dagney C. Ernest | Jan 03, 2018
Photo by: Sarah Szwajkos Steve Weston conducts the June 2017 concert by Midcoast Community Chorus. He was named the group’s artistic director a couple of months later.

Rockport — Midcoast Maine knows both the life-sustaining and -taking nature of water … and the blessing of a safe harbor. Midcoast Community Chorus explores these themes in its annual winter concert, set for Sunday afternoon, Jan. 14, at the Strom Auditorium.

At the helm is Steve Weston, a familiar face to chorus members and audiences who will be directing his first concert as MCC’s artistic director. Weston was named to the post last fall, after a national search. He follows the nine-year tenure of MCC founder Mimi Bornstein, who stepped down last spring to pursue new directions.

“Safe Harbor,” as the 2018 winter concert is called, is not the first MCC concert Weston has directed. He has been involved with the group for some four years, off and on and in different roles.

“There was a children’s choir at one point. I would come in and help cover for rehearsals or if they needed something extra for sectionals,” Weston said last month in the MCC’s Camden office. “She always asked me to come in to do voicings of the chorale, and then I took over chorale; so it’s been a progression.”

Like many a professional musician, Weston has a number of part-time jobs. A University of Maine grad with a master’s degree in choral conducting from New Mexico State University, Weston also is the assistant conductor of Vox Nova Chamber Choir, an auditioned community chorus in Brunswick; a singer in Intima, “a new subset under Vox Nova, just 14 of us doing a little bit more advanced music”; and the music director of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Belfast.

“And then I have a voice and flute studio with 30 students in Belfast and Camden,” he said.

Flute was Weston’s major at UMaine, but his various responsibilities have kept him from the pit orchestra work he has enjoyed in the past.

“I do wind doubling and stuff like that for musicals,” he said. “I was asked to be in the pit for two of my favorites this past November and I couldn’t do it!”

There’s a lot to do as artistic director of MCC, the largest chorus he has directed, aside from high school music festivals. Midcoast Community Chorus has around 150 singers (including the 40-voice auditioned Chorale) this semester, ranging in age from 22 to 94 — “a lady tenor, she’s awesome!” The average age is 50-ish, and the singers range from first-timers to veteran choristers.

Linda Leach, MCC's office manager, said, “I think one of the best things that Steve brings to a community chorus is supporting the people who have never sung before, who do not read music and still want to sing. He’s capable of bringing those people along.”

Weston said he is “very different from Mimi and they’re getting used to me and getting used to my process. Education is very important to me. I want all my singers to be just as much in love with the choral process as I am.”

That process is ongoing, now that Weston is artistic director. He is well into planning the next several concerts. The June concert, which continues the MCC tradition of being a benefit, will mark the chorus’ 10th year and will be a musical march through the decades, starting in the 1920s. The local nonprofit to benefit will be announced during the “Safe Harbor” performance.

“It’s a $5,000 grant,” Weston said.

The 2019 winter concert will be built around the color wheel, “because all sorts of songs have colors mentioned in them” and because the use of colored ribbons has become a tool for promoting different causes. Weston said he does not feel cornered in his programming and would consider doing a longer work, such as Malcolm Dalglish’s “Hymnody of Earth,” at some point. Last June’s program, which he produced as the group’s interim director, included a couple of familiar pop tunes.

“I heard from tons of people afterwards that ‘it was so nice to hear songs that we knew!’ So I thought, well, why not incorporate good stuff that people can sing along with? The audience is the other half of our community — they have to have the enjoyment, as well,” he said.

Because he is personally so passionate about choral music, Weston puts a lot of time and effort into choosing music that the group’s singers can all enjoy. It’s a challenge.

“It’s hard to balance easy vs. hard. I’ve got very well-trained musicians in the group and people who haven’t looked at a piece of music ever,” he said. “So there’s a lot of research.”

Weston’s directorial approach is such that the concert’s “big picture” was just beginning to appear in December. He said a singer had come up to him after a weekly rehearsal to say it had begun “to form” for her.

“Because I work in little snippets — we’ll do that and then that and then that, instead of doing the whole shebang. She said, 'I really dig this music,'” he said.

There is a lot of water imagery in the “Safe Harbor” works, perhaps no surprise as the program was initially inspired by Warsan Shire’s poem “Home,” which has been embraced by activists in regard to the ongoing European refugee crisis.

“The first line is, “No one leaves home/unless home is the mouth of a shark.” It’s quite a poem. And that’s what got me thinking of what is safety and where are people’s anchors in life,” Weston said.

The program he came up with celebrates the variety of things that people find to provide themselves a personal place of safety. Songs include the Beach Boys’ “In My Room,” America’s “Ventura Highway” and Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Waters.”

“There’s a line later on in the poem that says, ‘ … no one puts their children in a boat/unless the water is safer than the land.’ And that’s where anchor really came in for me. Where are these people trying to hold onto? So the first song I chose was ‘My Soul is Anchored in the Lord,’” Weston said.

Other watery selections include “Wade in the Water” and “Bring Me a Little Water, Silvy.” Weston said he wanted to lean toward the safe rather than unsafe as far as lyrics go, “so there’s rumblings underneath things, but not a lot. I would rather be light than heavy.”

The embrace of lightness will be especially evident in “Nyon Nyon” by Jacob Rumestad, described as a work of vocal orchestration.

“It’s all just sound — very ‘play.’ And for me, that’s where my personal place of safety is, where I can play and be light,” Weston said. “So that’s basically how I chose the music.”

A small ensemble of instrumentalists will accompany much of the music, “a smaller band than normal but I’d rather err on tight than overpowering,” said Weston.

In addition to Fleming on keyboards (and perhaps another instrument or two), the pit band will feature local musicians Liz Matta, Phil Clement, Doug Kennedy and Chuck McGregor.

Attendees of past MCC concerts know that they often sell out, and tickets for "Safe Harbor" have been on sale since mid-December. They are $15 general admission, with reserved side seats for $25 and reserved center seats $30, available online at mccsings.org. The general admission tickets also are available at Clean Bee Laundry in Camden, The Grasshopper Shop in Rockland and The Green Store in Belfast.

Leach said the "community that sings for the community," as MCC’s mission states, wants to be out in the community more. A first foray occurred during Camden’s Christmas by the Sea, when some of the chorus’ singers sang carols on the Village Green. Weston was delighted with the response.

“I think the caroling was a lovely first step. We had about 85 to 90 people; it was really beautiful,” Weston said. “I love what I do!”

After the Jan. 14 concert, the group will take a short breather before starting up again to prepare June’s 10th anniversary concert. Registration will be Monday evening, Feb. 19, most likely at Camden’s Congregational Church.

For more information about Midcoast Community Choir and the upcoming concert, visit the website, call 975-0582 or email info@mccsings.org.

Comments (1)
Posted by: Mary A McKeever | Jan 06, 2018 15:19

Steve: Love the article and it made me feel at "home". I am here in Arizona and am so glad you are thriving. Love your picture. Your hair is thinning but so is mine. I am now 83 and still just turning gray. I walk daily as it is cold, 55 degrees too cold for the pool outside. But soon will be swimming with this AZ "cold" weather. What a hoot. They should live in Maine about now. Write or e-mail back, it would be great to keep in touch. Love you!

Mary "Mickey" McKeever

1998 Prescott Lakes PKWY 177

Prescott, AZ 86301

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