When the Caribou Bicentennial Chorus formed in 1976 to help the city celebrate the nation’s bicentennial, it tapped into a love of music that has kept the group singing for 40 years.
As the bicentennial year ended, the chorus decided it did not want to disband. With Carol White as its first president, the group established bylaws, took the name Caribou Choral Society and asked Daniel Ladner to be its director. That was 40 years ago.
“We must be doing something right,” Ladner said. “It’s worked through all these years.”
The chorus celebrates its anniversary this month with Christmas concerts scheduled in Madawaska, Presque Isle and Caribou on Dec. 4, 9 and 10, respectively.
“Few community organizations start up and last 40 years,” Ladner said. “There is nothing quite like sharing the love and enthusiasm of singing with others and sharing that feeling with our audiences.”
For Mary Lou Nelson of New Sweden and Donna Small of Caribou, exposure to a broad range of music is one of the attractions that have kept them singing with the chorus every year since 1976.
“I love music. It’s part of my life,” Nelson said, praising the camaraderie and access to music she might not otherwise experience in northern Maine. Small echoed those sentiments.
“It’s been a highlight of my life,” she said. “Being able to sing helps us keep a positive attitude. Singing — being a part of music— keeps us healthy.”
The musical programs combine classical and popular music for performances each spring and fall. Ladner chooses difficult pieces that educate singers and audiences, providing balance with selections that are familiar, sometimes comedic, usually during the second half of the concert.
“People need something familiar to listen to,” he said, even though the difficult pieces deepen the experience and create a sense of accomplishment and pride for the singers.
Back in 1976, Nelson had to have special permission to join the Caribou Bicentennial Chorus because she was from New Sweden. Since those early years, the Caribou Choral Society has embraced singers from numerous communities in northern Maine and western New Brunswick, growing from 30 to as many as 120 members at times.
Ladner recalled adding members from Canada back in the late 1980s after the chorus was invited to perform as part of an annual concert series in Perth-Andover, New Brunswick.
“I remember performing in the high school gym there, maybe three times, and, of course, each time I would invite audience members to consider joining us in our next series of rehearsals. That’s how we started getting Canadian members.”
Peter Penny of Plaster Rock, New Brunswick, has sung with the chorus ever since. He and the late Brenda McNeal were featured soloists for many years. Concerts also have featured members of the group who play instruments, in addition to singing.
The chorus first performed on a float the members had built in Orman Blackstone’s potato house in order to be part of the bicentennial parade.
“This float, driven by Roland Wedberg, carried the chorus, a piano, and a replica of the Liberty Bell, which 8-year-old Stacey White rang while the chorus sang, ‘I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy,’ for the entire length of the three-mile parade route,” Nelson wrote in a retrospective on the Choral Society’s first 10 years.
Since then, the choral society has performed throughout the region. In addition to Holy Rosary Church in Caribou, St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Presque Isle, and St. Thomas Church in Madawaska, concert sites have included St. Mary’s Church in Bangor, St. Luce Church in Upper Frenchville, St. Louis Church in Fort Kent, St. Bruno-St. Remi Church in Van Buren, St. Agatha Church in St. Agatha, and St. Denis Church in Fort Fairfield. The group also has done combined shows with the Houlton Community Chorus and the Northern Maine Chamber Orchestra and has performed in Ashland, Plaster Rock, New Brunswick, and on University of Maine campuses in Fort Kent and Presque Isle.
“A highlight of our concertizing included a thrilling Christmas concert in the massive Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Edmundston, New Brunswick,” Ladner said. The chorus is featured on a “Christmas in the County” video, and Christmas concerts previously televised on WAGM-TV and MPBN-TV are still shown occasionally during the holidays.
“We have never charged admission,” Ladner said. Members pay dues and collect donations from the audience at the end of each concert.
“I have had nothing but happiness out of singing with this group,” Small said. “Dan is so uplifting, he keeps us wound up. I tell him he is going to be our Arthur Fiedler into his 90s.”
The Caribou Choral Society’s 40th anniversary Christmas concerts are scheduled for 3 p.m. Dec. 4 at St. Thomas Church in Madawaska, 7 p.m. Dec. 9 at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Presque Isle, and 7 p.m. Dec. 10 at Holy Rosary Church in Caribou.
Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 626, Caribou, ME 04736.