Frederick A. Binkholder, Artistic Director

Singing Through It All

Soprano Elizabeth McMahon Gives Voice to What It's Meant to be Able to Sing Through the Pandemic

For nearly 15 years as a singer with the Capitol Hill Chorale, I’ve experienced my share of adventures and challenges with my choral family. There was the time in 2019 when we sang selections from a lost masterwork to an Orthodox priest at a 12th century monastery atop a mountain near Kutaisi, Georgia — an otherworldly highpoint. There was the 2017 power outage that plunged our Christmas concert venue into total darkness — a low point we now remember warmly with the gift of time and candles.

But nothing could have prepared me for COVID-19, a challenge that would test my lifelong passion for choral singing. March 11, 2020 was the day of our last “normal” CHC rehearsal — we weren’t yet wearing masks, but there was lots of nervous energy and little doubt we’d all be back together soon once this thing blew over. But as the days turned into weeks and then months, I realized my weekly musical escape — the pastime I’d loved for nearly four decades — was not only not happening, it was actually dangerous to public health.

Luckily, the Capitol Hill Chorale is not composed of quitters. Even as our vocal cords rusted and our tight-knit community seemingly scattered during weeks of quarantine, CHC leaders were figuring out ways to keep our group alive and thriving. For me, their determination to get us all on Zoom and singing together was like a lifeline in an endless string of housebound days. It wasn’t the singing I loved about our virtual rehearsals — in fact I was embarrassed to sing much louder than a mezzo piano in my own home — it was seeing all those familiar faces in their tiny boxes and trying to work together toward something.

By late spring 2021, the Capitol Hill Chorale was meeting regularly at a wide-open amphitheater in Alexandria, VA, a place we could stand a spacious 6-8 feet apart and follow all the CDC safety protocols. It wasn’t ideal. Roaring traffic, loudly tweeting birds and the occasional up-tempo beats from family parties nearby made singing — or even hearing our director, Fred Binkholder — extremely difficult. But these rehearsals, and the individual recordings we were asked to submit on deadline for virtual concerts hinted at normalcy, gave me a project, and kept me engaged in the one activity I loved, even as everything else fell by the wayside.

As we start our third year living with COVID-19 and a spring season of new music together, CHC maintains the same steady grit and determination it showed in those early months of the pandemic. I’ll admit I haven’t been much of a leader through these challenges. I’ve shown up, I’ve submitted my recordings, and I’m now swabbing my nose before each in-person rehearsal and following all the protocols. Singing behind suffocating layers of fabric and not hearing the full, glorious sound of the choir I love gets me down. But there’s something that happens when we all land on that last sonorous ‘Amen’ of Juan Gutierrez de Padilla’s “Missa Ego Flos Campi,” or exclaim together that “Thou art my joy” in Gerald Finzi’s “My Spirit Sang All Day.”

Call it rejuvenation, perhaps inspiration. I call it hope, and no infectious disease can ever kill that.