Dr. Minji Kim, musical director of the Newburyport Choral Society, conducts with her whole body. It’s almost balletic, the way she moves around the stage, bouncing on the balls of her feet, swaying, waving, and clapping, with her hands elegantly swirling and fluttering. Music swirls around her as a hundred voices follow her every move, rising, falling, and pausing in tentative harmony.
It’s the end of October, and the group of more than 100 singers is rehearsing at Belleville Church in Newburyport, about six weeks away from a winter concert performance, “A Celebration of Unity: Holiday Music from Around the World.” They are working on “Harambee,” a Kenyan piece celebrating Kwanzaa that is sung in Kiswahili and has some tricky vocalizations. “It’s okay to make a mistake, but it’s perhaps not okay to hide yourself,” Kim says encouragingly. “So, bring your whole self.”
The group starts the section again, louder and more confident as they wrap 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 right along with her. “Minji has a lot of energy,” says Kathleen Amesbury combined 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 amateur— meaning unpaid—but many have experience or even careers 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 such a lot of supporters who have been here for much longer than I have been. So, they can guide me.”
Indeed, several members have been singing with the choral society since before Kim was born. The multigenerational group spans from people in their 20s to people approaching 90. “Making beautiful music just feels great,” says Brittian’s husband, David, who joined the choral society in 2018. “I enjoy the camaraderie and the sense of sharing a common purpose with other people.”
The new energy Kim brings to the group expands beyond the physical. Songs for this year’s holiday concert are in five different languages, including Portuguese and Hebrew, and the event embraces Kwanzaa and Hanukkah, in addition to classic Christmas carols. In many ways, this performance is the society’s most inclusive, 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 the antiracism-for-choral-practices pledge created by the advocacy group “Black Voices Matter.”
Membership director Penny Lazarus says inherent in that change 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 the world. “This was a major component of the conductor search process this year,” Lazarus says, adding that Kim shared the ideas for the Celebration of Unity concert during her interview as an example of her programming. “It was very clear to the chorus that Minji is dedicated to using music to not only spread joy but also engage our singers and audiences with music from diverse cultures, in an expression of world peace and understanding.”
It’s carrying 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 celebratory essence,” she says. Conducting a chorus of human voices is quite different from conducting an orchestra, Kim says. “If I am playing a violin, then it’s not actually me making the sound, it is the bow that is making the sound on the instrument,” she says. “With voices, I am the instrument. That’s a humongous difference—I get to work directly with human souls. I can hear if they are joyous, if they are sad, if they are tired, if they are energetic—it all reflects in their sound.”