The Newburyport Choral Society has a new music director and a new mission

Dr. Minji Kim, music director of the Newburyport Choral Society, conducts with her whole body. It’s almost balletic in the way she moves across the stage, bouncing on her feet, swaying, waving and clapping, her arms gracefully twirling and fluttering. The music swirls around her as hundreds of voices follow her every move, rising, falling and stopping in wavering harmony.

It’s late October, and the group of more than 100 singers is rehearsing at Belleville Church in Newburyport, about six weeks before the winter concert, “A Celebration of Unity: Holiday Music from Around the World.” They are working on “Harambee,” a Kenyan track celebrating Kwanzaa that is sung in Swahili and has some difficult vocalizations. “It’s okay to make a mistake, but maybe it’s not okay to hide,” says Kim encouragingly. “So bring your whole self.”

The group starts the section again, louder and more confident as they roll their tongues around the unfamiliar words. Kim smiles and gives a big thumbs up from the stage and soon the whole group is swaying and bouncing along with her. “Minji has a lot of energy,” said Kathleen Amesbury with some volunteers from Newburyport.

These days, the 100-plus members travel from Boston, Manchester, New Hampshire and even Maine to be part of the group. All the singers are amateurs, meaning they are not paid, but many of them have a background or even a career in music. “I feel so blessed” to join a group with such a long history, Kim says, noting that most of her experience has been with youth choirs. “I think it’s really amazing that I have so many supporters who have been here a lot longer than I have. So they can direct me.

Indeed, several members have been singing with the choral society since before Kim was born. The multi-generational group includes people in their 20s to people approaching 90. “Making beautiful music is just great,” says Brittian’s husband, David, who joined the choral society in 2018. “I enjoy the camaraderie and the sense of sharing a common goal with other people.”

The new energy Kim brings to the group goes beyond the physical. The songs for this year’s holiday concert are in five different languages, including Portuguese and Hebrew, and the event features Kwanzaa and Hanukkah, in addition to classic carols. In many ways, this performance is the most inclusive society, continuing the work the society has been doing since 2020. Then, in response to the killing of George Floyd, they added new language to their constitution, using anti-racism as a chorus—a promise of practices, created by the advocacy group Black Voices Matter.

Director of Membership Penny Lazarus says that inherent in this shift is a desire to sing a more diverse selection of pieces, expanding the Western tradition of European choral music by consciously including more choral work by women composers and composers of color, and more music from around world. “It was a major component of the conductor search process this year,” Lazarus says, adding that Kim shared ideas for the Celebration of Unity concert during her interview as an example of her programming. “For the chorus, it was very clear that Minji is committed to using music not only to spread joy, but also to engage our singers and audiences with music from different cultures, in an expression of world peace and understanding.”

It carries an important message, but it’s also music to “enjoy with your whole body,” says Kim, who grew up in South Korea. “This winter concert has a festive essence,” she says. Conducting a choir of human voices is quite different from conducting an orchestra, Kim says. “If I’m playing the violin, then I’m not actually making the sound, the bow is making the sound of the instrument,” she says. “With the voices, I am the instrument. This is a huge difference – I work directly with human souls. I can hear if they’re happy, if they’re sad, if they’re tired, if they’re energetic – it’s all reflected in their sound.”

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