Scituate choir students to take part in Pilgrim Festival Chorus’s performance of Mozart’s ‘Requiem’

Music Director Bill Richter has been in Scituate for 37 years and has been a teacher for 43 years. Photo by Robin Chan

SCITUATE MARINER – Members of the Scituate High School Select Choir will have the chance of a lifetime when they perform Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s choral masterwork “Requiem” with Pilgrim Festival Chorus later this month.

The concert, set for Sunday, April 28, at 4 p.m., at Scituate Center for the Performing Arts will be a celebration of Pilgrim Festival Chorus’s 20th anniversary and feature four professional soloists, accompanied by a 21-piece professional orchestra.

Scituate High School Choral Director Bill Richter has long anticipated the celebration, for a multitude of reasons.

Richter serves as Pilgrim Festival Chorus’s (PFC) founding co-artistic director and will be conducting the performance. A music educator for 43 years, he also serves as the front of house manager for the Scituate Center for the Performing Arts.

“It is the first time the PFC will perform a major masterwork outside of Plymouth, and the first time a masterwork will be performed with this high school choir,” he said. “This is not your typical high school repertoire. Most high schools would not attempt a work of this difficulty, but we’re really enjoying the process.”

The Pilgrim Festival Chorus

“Twenty years ago Pilgrim Festival Chorus was founded as a choral ensemble,” Richter said. “There had been one around earlier, but it had petered out.”

Choirs from Plymouth-area churches would gather to perform a choir festival, he said, from which the concept surfaced, collectively gathering the choirs together to create a chorus.

There were 108 singers in the initial chorus roster, which first performed on Thanksgiving, 1999.

Co-Artistic Directors William Richter and Elizabeth Reilly, photo by Denise Maccaferri

Richter and founding co-artistic director Elizabeth Chapman Reilly worked together prior to forming PFC and have since worked in tandem with the chorus, now considered the South Shore’s principal non-profit community chorus.

One of Chapman Reilly’s roles is serving as accompanist for the Requiem rehearsals.

“I’m extremely fortunate to be able to work with Elizabeth,” Richter said. “She is a talented organist and pianist and a wonderful resource. She’s very historically-minded and sits up until 2 a.m. researching choral music. We’ve been working together for more than 31 years.”

The idea for the PFC/student choir collaboration originated when Chapman Reilly and Richter made the decision to perform Mozart’s “Requiem” with the chorus.

“I thought it would be a great opportunity for my students, especially since we were going to be performing in Scituate,” Richter said.

The Select Choir, an auditioned ensemble of nearly 60 high school singers, is currently immersed in rehearsing the masterwork, aspiring to foster the students’ lifelong appreciation of classical and choral music.

Scituate High School’s Select Choir rehearsing for its performance of the Mozart Requiem with Pilgrim Festival Chorus, under the direction of William Richter. Photo by Michelle McGrath PR

“I knew my students were becoming attached to the “Requiem” when, during rehearsal, one student leaned over to another and whispered, ‘What’s your favorite movement?’” Richter said. The students will also enjoy performing with the four professional soloists, who were selected from a talented pool of recent vocal performance college graduates.

The ‘Requiem’

“Mozart was a child prodigy,” Richter said. “He was incredibly talented and immensely popular. He was the rock star of the late 1700s.”

“Mozart’s ‘Requiem’ is shrouded in all sorts of mystery, even to this day,” Richter continued.

“The composer was in failing health when a mysterious stranger appeared at his door who sought to commission a Requiem Mass.”

As his health deteriorated, so did his mental state. Sensing he was about to die, Mozart became obsessed with the piece. He died on December 5, 1791, at age 35 before he could finish his work.

Mozart’s widow Constanze, fearing she would have to return the advance payment if it was discovered the work was not complete, asked Joseph Eybler to finish the score. He passed the task on to one of Mozart’s pupils, Sussmayr, to whom Mozart had left detailed instruction about finishing the composition. Sussmayr copied the entire completed score in his own hand and gave it to the stranger.

This mysterious stranger is believed to have been Anton Leitgeb, valet of Count Franz von Walsegg-Stuppach. The Count wanted to use Mozart’s ‘Requiem’ as a tribute to his late wife, Anna.

Music man

Music is life blood for Richter.

Growing up in Hanson, music was a part of his life from the very beginning.

“My parents were music lovers,” he said. “There was always classical music playing in our home. I have memories of my father listening to Mozart’s ‘Requiem’ and being moved to tears.”

Richter started taking piano lessons at age 6, but put the lessons on hold around age 14 when he became more interested in girls and baseball. He returned to playing piano in high school and was involved in the school band, the chorus and the Drama Club.

Music Director Bill Richter stands by his podium while holding a book of Mozart music in his classroom at the high school on Wednesday, March 20. Photo by Robin Chan

When it came time to look ahead to the future, he considered combining his passion for music with teaching. His mother was a fifth grade teacher, and he thought it would provide more steady employment than making a living as a professional musician.

He attended Boston Conservatory for music education and realized it was his calling. He also completed graduate studies in choral conducting at Boston University and Westminster Choir College.

Richter taught music in Plymouth schools for a year, followed by a position teaching in Brookline for the next six years. The commute from the South Shore became a burden. Once he started a family in 1983, he took a position teaching closer to home in the Scituate Public Schools, serving as a music educator, music department administrator and choral director. He has spent the last 20 years in Scituate solely at the high school.

“I’m enjoying wonderful times right now,” he said. “I have great students, and am very fortunate to work with some brilliant teachers and instructors, as well as some remarkably talented kids.”

Richter enjoys a special connection with his students, and is pleased the kids view the music room as a safe happy place.

“The kids just gravitate here,” he said. “That’s really important. It means so much to me.”

His legacy stretches beyond the high school music room; he is very much a part of the Scituate community.

“I have cycled through several generations of the same families over the years,” he shares.

In addition to his work at the high school, Richter has also served as music director at First Trinitarian Congregational Church of Scituate for 11 years.

Pilgrim Festival Chorus in concert, 2018
Courtesy image

Richter has two sons, both of whom have followed him in careers in music. His older son, Jonathan, is an active conductor, vocalist and music educator who currently serves on the choral faculty at New England Conservatory in Boston and as a professor at UMass Lowell. Richter’s son, Adam, is on tour as the stage manager for The Beach Boys.

The performance

Not only Richter is excited about the upcoming performances, but the students and members of the chorus are too.

“There will be powerful performance moments for Scituate choral students this year,” Richter said. “The Scituate Center for the Performing Arts is a top-notch concert hall; it will be an amazing experience for all of us.”

“Choral singers are attracted to the ‘Requiem’ as singers and audience alike,” said Michelle McGrath, PFC’s public relations consultant and a member of the ensemble. “Twenty-two new singers have joined the chorus this season alone, inspired by this program.”

The performance is preceded by a setting of English Poet Laureate John Dryden’s poem, “A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day.” The work is the creation of Massachusetts composer Clifton J. Noble, commissioned by the Assabet Valley Mastersingers in 1998 as a companion piece to its performance of the ‘Requiem.’

PFC’s Mozart ‘Requiem’ performs in Scituate at 4 p.m. on Sunday, April 28, at the Scituate Center for the Performing Arts, located at the rear of the high school, 606 Chief Justice Cushing Highway (Route 3A). A prior performance on Saturday, April 27, 7:30 p.m., in Plymouth at St. Bonaventure’s Parish, features just the adult musicians and singers.

Tickets are $20 for adults, $18 for senior citizens and $15 for students over 14. Scituate Public School students up to age 14 are admitted for free by reservation, and special discounted tickets are available for Scituate families available only by online advance purchase, supported in part by Scituate Cultural Council.

Tickets sold at the door do not qualify for discounts. All tickets are available at pilgrimfestivalchorus.org and from PFC members. To reserve tickets by phone, call Gail at (781) 826-8416. Limited tickets will be available at the door, as venue capacity allows.

Follow Ruth Thompson on Twitter @scituateruth