New choir, oratorio raise ‘Voices of Timbuctoo’

Retired local music teacher Helen Demong is training a new choir to debut a single, original oratorio for John Brown Day next weekend. They’ll give voice – about 70 voices, actually – to a largely forgotten but remarkable piece of local and national history.

An oratorio is a large-scale musical work that tells a story with voices and instruments but without costumes, scenery or action – think Handel’s “Messiah.” This one, written by Glenn McClure at the request of regional group John Brown Lives, tells how wealthy white abolitionist Gerrit Smith gave away 120,000 acres of land in the town of North Elba to free blacks.

Smith’s idea was to get the families out of urban poverty and also to help them become voters, since state law at the time let only property owners cast ballots. But while being long on idealism, the farming colony known as Timbuctoo was short on agricultural viability. It wasn’t good farmland, and the 100-plus families who moved there often didn’t have enough money to maintain their enterprises or pay property taxes. Plus, the Fugitive Slave Law made any settlement of northern blacks a target for bounty hunters. It didn’t last long, and even in the neighboring village of Lake Placid, which didn’t exist at the time, there are few records of it.

Those that could be found were pulled together in the early 2000s in an exhibit called “Dreaming of Timbuctoo.” The oratorio is an extension of that.

It began as a conversation between Martha Swan, the director of John Brown Lives, and composer Glenn McClure, according to Demong.

“She talked about this presentation, ‘Dreaming of Timbuctoo,’ and proposed to Glenn, ‘What do you think about writing an original piece on this theme?'” Demong told the Enterprise.

McClure thought it was a good idea, and thus “Voices of Timbuctoo” was born. Some of the words he wrote come from letters in the “Dreaming of Timbuctoo” collection.

“Then in September (last year),” Demong said, “Glenn called me and asked, ‘Would you be willing to to pull together a group of singers to perform an original oratorio?'”

She was willing, and formed the Northern Lights Choir for the occasion. She hoped to get 50 singers but now has about 70, she said.

Demong retired in 2011 after a 34-year career teaching music in the Saranac Lake Central School District. She was best known for 23 years of breathing life into the high school vocal music program, during which she grew the choruses from 15 to 90 students and led many ambitious musical theater productions.

One of her biggest moments as a teacher came in 2006, when she brought a group of 25 high school students to Siena, Italy to perform an original oratorio about Galileo Galilei – written by McClure.

“He has been a huge arts integration composer,” Demong said. It means he goes into schools and makes connections with history classes, English classes. He’s also huge in world music.”

Demong met him roughly a decade ago at an music educators’ workshop.

“I loved it, so I approached him afterward and said, ‘What would it take to get get you to come up to Saranac Lake with your steel drums and work with our students?'”

He gave her a fee, she got a grant from the Saranac Lake Young Arts Association, and they made it happen.

He must have been impressed, because it wasn’t long afterward that he invited her students to sing his piece in Siena.

This new choir ranges in age from 16 to 80, Demong said, and includes a diversity of hometowns – from the Tri-Lakes area as well as Malone, Keene, Elizabethtown and Willsboro – and qualifications. On one end of the spectrum, soloists Marsha Andrews and George Cordes once sang at the Metropolitan Opera. But many are “people who probably sang in high school and college but haven’t sung in decades. It’s thrilling. … It is a cross-section of singers in the North Country.”

The Northern Lights Choir will sing “Voices of Timbuctoo” twice next weekend. The debut will be at a special concert at 8 p.m. Friday, May 10 at St. Bernard’s Church, a Catholic house of worship in Saranac Lake. There they’ll also sing four other songs related to the abolition theme: “Oh, Captain, My Captain,” “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “This Is My Song” (which borrows the melody of Jean Sibelius’ “Finlandia”) and a spiritual, “True Light.”

The next day they’ll perform the oratorio only at John Brown Day at the John Brown Farm State Historic Site outside Lake Placid, not far from the former Timbuctoo. Events there begin at 2 p.m. and also include talks by famous comedian and political activist Dick Gregory and Harriet Tubman biographer Kate Clifford Larson.