by Constance Garcia-Barrio
For Cailin Manson, founder and director of the Germantown Concert Chorus (GCC), the world literally is his stage. Manson, 30, of Mt. Airy, has sung at St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris and other concert venues in Europe and Asia. “I’ve performed on every continent except Antarctica,” said Manson, whose baritone voice is as smooth and rich as crème brulee.
Manson has brought international savoir faire to GCC, which developed from the 200th anniversary of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Germantown from 2010 to 2011. The celebration included a three-hour performance of Handel’s “Messiah,” which required 80 singers. “The church is big, but there was standing room only,” Manson said. Thanks to the “Messiah,” Manson met many talented amateur singers.
Despite the success of the “Messiah,” Manson didn’t rush to found GCC. “I asked myself if I felt called to the task and ready to take on the work involved,” he said. “At GCC I’m the conductor, coach, fundraiser, underwriter, public relations man and more.” Foresight about GCC’s potential benefits may have urged him on. “We’re learning songs in German and Hebrew,” said Naomi Dobson, a member since GCC’s founding 18 months ago. “The music challenges me. It’s staving off Alzheimer’s,” she said, laughing.
While Manson draws on numerous composers and rhythms to build GCC’s repertoire, Dobson hints that Manson’s skill as a conductor must have come from elsewhere. “For the kind of gift he has as a conductor, he must have been a musician in previous lives,” she says.
Manson’s mother, Linda Manson, who sings in GCC’s alto section, puts it another way. “I have three other sons,” she said. “Cailin is my youngest. He was always different, always bossy. It’s been humbling to watch him grow, to be with him for the day-to-day journey.”
By age two or three, Manson could climb up on the piano bench and pick out a tune by ear. “Music was always in our home, and my parents have strong singing voices” said Manson, raised in Mt. Airy. He attended high school in the Cheltenham School District, where he sang in the choir and played the trombone. Upon graduating from Cheltenham at 16, he entered Temple University’s Esther Boyer College of Music on a scholarship. Later, he earned master’s degrees in opera and orchestral conducting from the Mozarteum Salzburg in Austria.
Already known as an opera soloist, Manson was also guest conductor and then music director for Vorarlberger Musikfest in Bregenz, Austria, from 2008-2010. He was also music director and then conductor of the now-disbanded Chamber Symphony of Atlantic City. With GCC, Manson faced weaving the singers’ varied strengths into a distinctive sound. “The chorus has retired music teachers, professional musicians, some people who read music well and others who don’t,” he said. “The singers’ passion for music unites them.”
In time, Manson noticed something happening. “People began to offer each other rides to rehearsals,” he said. “They started sharing with one another on a personal level. One woman asked for prayers for her sick mother. We have community rather than competition. Music-making has deepened into caring for each other.”
The 53-member chorus, open to the public, includes singers of different ages, races and ethnicities. Manson considers such identities trappings that are foreign to the music. “The ethic I foster in rehearsal is to get them outside of themselves,” he said. “The most important person, if anyone, is the composer and his or her intention.”
For Manson, a grassroots chorus and artistic excellence go together. He stretches GCC with dissonances and rhythmically difficult work. “We have the gall to take on pieces like Leonard Bernstein’s ‘Chichester Psalms,’” Manson said. “After all, we’ve already performed at the Kimmel Center, the region’s premier stage.” The chorus also sings in Hebrew, French and German. Manson speaks all of those languages, in addition to Italian. He also reads Russian and Czech.
Living as an artist often means juggling several gigs. In 2009, to help singers at St. Luke’s Church prepare for the 200th anniversary celebration, Manson founded the Germantown Institute for Vocal Arts. This two-week summer intensive, a training program for aspiring classical singers, includes performances and master classes. Manson has also been artistic director of the Montgomery County Youth Orchestra, Hanover Township, since 2009. He conducts, coaches and rehearses students from ages 10 to 19.
To learn more about GCC, visit cailin12.wix.com/gccphila. GCC’s next concert will be on Saturday, May 18, 7 p.m., at Calvary Presbyterian Church in Wyncote.
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