Monday rehearsals for Asheville Choral Society begin at exactly 7:15 p.m. No chatting. No daydreaming. No fiddling with your cell phone. There's a concert coming up, and there is work to be done.
It's a very important concert, a farewell to a beloved leader, a last musical program for Lenora Thom as ACS Music Director.
"Lift, lift, lift … release," Thom tells the singers as she starts them off with breathing exercises. "Now, we're going to hum five notes. Breathe into it."
The exercises go on for about three minutes, and it only takes that amount of time for a visitor to realize the rehearsal is a rich, intense, heartfelt musical experience in itself. The small sanctuary of the Haywood Campus of Central United Methodist Church is almost filled. The 100 or so members pay close attention to Thom's words.
"Have a seat. Don't talk. Don't talk."
"Lenora runs a tight ship," says Bob McGahey, an ACS member since 2002. "She is clearly the best. … She will missed at ACS."
And, for good reasons. Since her seventh-grade days as an assistant choir director, Lenora Thom has spent 40 years working with large choral groups. Prior to her move to Asheville in 1998, Thom enjoyed a busy and varied professional career in the New York City area, where she led the New Jersey Choral Society and Orchestra, the Kean (N.J.) Chamber Symphony and the Riverdale (N.Y.) Chamber Orchestra.
A conductor, pianist, vocal coach, organist and arranger, she is well known locally for her work with many of Asheville's leading musical groups: Asheville Symphony Orchestra, Flat Rock Playhouse and Asheville Community Theatre. Thom was appointed Music Director of Asheville Choral Society in 2000, following the retirement of founding director and Music Director Emeritus Dr. Robert P. Keener.
"The last 10 years with ACS have been grand," Thom tells Xpress. Her stepping down as the group's music director is simply a natural progression at this point in her life, she says. "After 40 years in the music profession, I'm ready to lighten up some of my schedule to enjoy other aspects of my life … my family, friends and so much more. It's 'just time' for me to leave ACS. They're ready for a new director to take them on their next adventure. They have a positive future ahead of them."
However, Thom has not completed her ACS tenure just yet. "The (May) concert is only three weeks away, and I have about 100 hours of work between now and then," Thom says — one reason rehearsals are so intense.
"Sing loudly. Dig in and give it a bigger voice," Thom tells the group as they practice "Do Nothing 'til You Hear From Me." It's a difficult piece to sing — a jazzy, syncopated song with music written by Duke Ellington and lyrics by Bob Russell. "Let's go back," Thom tells the choral group. "This is a tricky arrangement. Speak the words with me. Feel the rhythm? Feel it?"
And feel it, they do. "Lenora, as a director, has a sense of humor," says Andrea Rosal, a member of ACS since 2007 and current vice president of the Board of Directors. "She knows how to read what the chorus is doing and communicates in terms that connect with people."
Thom is well-loved by the group for many reasons. One is the diversity in music she has brought to ACS. She loves all types of music and tries hard to present many styles of music, say those who work with her.
"She is great at programming," says MaGahey. He explained that Thom has the innate ability to move easily between swing and classical songs, and much more. "She just has this bodily sense of what song to choose for a performance so that it is interesting and challenging at the same time."
Thom is proud of her thematic programming: "I spend thousands of hours agonizing over what songs to put in a particular concert, going through many pieces of music," she says. "I want each performance to be different. I like all of my concerts."
She's also been able to help the volunteer, auditioned chorus grow from a smaller and less-diverse group to one that ranges in age from 14-84 and has an average of about 140 singers. A majority of the members are (or have been) professional musicians, or have considerable choral knowledge. However, Thom has worked hard to make the less experienced feel welcome and an important part of ACS.
"I first met Lenora when she directed Music Man at Asheville Community Theatre in 2000. She asked me to sing an arpeggio during the audition, and I had to whisper to the accompanist, 'What's an arpeggio?'" says Doug Hauschild, via e-mail. He has worked under Thom her entire time at ACS. "I am currently rehearsing for my 30th concert under Lenora's direction, and I've received an excellent music education without a single private lesson," he says.
There is no doubt that ACS is sad to see Thom leave — and it will take a year-long search and a season of guest conductors to replace her, Rosal says.
Yet, the singers understand her choice and look forward to the challenge of finding someone to fill the vacated spot. "Nobody can truly replace Lenora," Hauschild says. "We will all miss her very much. I'm just thankful that she stayed 10 years."
Tracy D. Hyorth can be reached at email@example.com.
who: Asheville Choral Society
what: Unforgettable, The best of American popular music: timeless classics, from the 1930s to the present day
where: Diana Wortham Theatre
when: Saturday, May 22 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, May 23 at 4 p.m. ($20 and $10 for students. www.ashevillechoralsociety.org and 232-2060)