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Trying for a high note in Hingham’s 375th

Birthday planners assemble 375-voice chorus to lead group sing

By Johanna Seltz
Globe Correspondent / April 25, 2010

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HINGHAM — Three hundred and seventy-five years ago, families from Hingham, England, settled on the South Shore at what was then known as Bare Cove — for its mud flats — and renamed it after their hometown.

The now-prosperous settlement just 15 miles from downtown Boston has been celebrating that moment — when it became the 12th incorporated town in the Massachusetts Bay Colony — with a yearlong series of events ending in September.

The anniversary celebration includes big musical plans — a 375-voice chorus performing patriotic tunes by the town harbor before the traditional Fourth of July fireworks.

“We want to encourage as many people as possible to be involved, and frankly we don’t care if they can sing or not,’’ Paul Cappers, the event’s musical director, said recently. “It would be nice if it could sound good, but [the goal is to create] a great town spirit thing.’’

The inspiration for the group sing was the town’s ambitious pageant to mark its 300th anniversary, which featured 1,000 Hingham residents at what was then the Hingham Shipyard.

“We actually have a box of three-by-five cards with the names of people and what they were doing’’ in the pageant, said Ann Burnaby, who is working with Cappers. “There were people carrying banners, people singing.

“The older people who were in it really remember it. There’s a lot of things happening for [this year’s anniversary], but no big group thing. I just thought we need something massive. I don’t know how many people we’ll get, but I think anybody who joins in will really have a good memory.’’

Count Violet Villani in. The 85-year-old remembers participating in the 1935 pageant; she was in the crowd scenes, and still has her costume — pantaloons and a gray and white checked dress. She also took part in the 325th and 350th celebrations.

“I’ve been involved with music all my life,’’ she said. “I’m still able to sing a few notes, although I’ve lost all my nice high-soprano notes — the high C’s and all. . . . I think [this] is a wonderful idea.’’

Two groups of three generations also have signed up.

Justine Thurston, who chairs the anniversary committee, will sing with her daughter, Justine Stacie Thurston, and 21-year-old grandson, Robin Keith Stuart-Tilley, who coincidentally was born just outside Hingham, England.

Carolyn Antoine, her mother, Jan Bacon, and 11-year-old daughter, Rebecca, are the other three-generation families taking part. Carolyn also had a role in the 350th anniversary: She and her husband, Michael, were married in Colonial style at the Old Ship Church as part of those festivities.

“They put this little blurb out saying, ‘Anyone who’s getting married and would like to be married in the celebration, come forward.’ We did, and we were chosen,’’ Antoine said.

The entire town was invited to the May 4 wedding, she said, and the wedding party wore clothes made by Antoine’s mother from original Colonial-era patterns, and the bride and groom arrived in a horse and carriage.

“We had to speak in ‘thees and thous’ and ‘plight our trough,’ all that wordage,’’ she said. “Afterward, we shared wine on the steps to the church and had a maypole, and spice cake and tea for all the people outside . . . and a feast at the reception with whole hams and turkeys.’’

No wedding is planned for the 375th anniversary, but there are a slew of other activities, all financed by private donations, according to Thurston. The full schedule can be viewed at www.hingham-ma.gov/375th.

Highlights include an April 18 lecture on Melville Garden, the Victorian-era amusement park once located on Crow Point, at the Hingham Public Library; a “visit’’ from abolitionist Frederick Douglass on the weekend of May 1 and 2; and a Civil War encampment on June 26 with reenactors from the 22d Massachusetts Infantry and 1st Massachusetts Cavalry.

The committee is still planning the finale event for September. Meanwhile, Cappers has been working since late January with a core group of about two dozen singers — the new Hingham Town Chorus — to prepare the six songs for the July sing-along.

“We meet every Tuesday evening at the Town Hall, in the Senior Center, which used to be the music room back when [the building] was Central Junior High and I taught there,’’ said Cappers. “I had my little choir of 12 students — that’s what we started with. . . . At the peak, we had about 120 at the high school before I left.’’

Cappers was music director at Hingham High School for 18 years, before retiring in 2005, and several members of the new chorus were his former students. Others are alumni parents who chaperoned on trips to Europe, he said.

Some singers have fancier credentials. One woman toured with the Broadway musical “A Chorus Line,’’ and another sang the national anthem before a Red Sox game, Cappers said. Several singers come from local church choirs or one of the numerous private singing groups in town.

“You would be amazed,’’ Burnaby said. “You could sing every other day of the week, at least, in some group. . . . It’s quite a widespread passion in this town.’’

She ticked off the names of choral groups at seven churches, the Senior Center, and the Linden Ponds retirement community. Then there are the Unicorn Singers, Bare Cove Chorale, and numerous barbershop quartets. Add the resources at the South Shore Conservatory and the public and private schools in town, Burnaby said, and there’s a huge pool of singing talent to tap for the full anniversary chorus.

Cappers has chosen the songs — the list is on the website — and hopes to have some rehearsals in June, although he stressed that sheet music will be available at the event and everyone is welcome to “jump in.’’

He and Burnaby are contacting the schools and local singing groups to ask for help reaching the goal of 375 singers for the Fourth of July celebration, which is scheduled for July 2, with a rain date of July 4.

The goal is short of a Guinness World record — that was set in May 2009 by a 100,000-person choir in India — but it’s a hefty number for a chorus. Think Mormon Tabernacle Choir size.

“I don’t believe in my wildest dreams we’ll have that many,’’ Burnaby said. “But it’s a work in progress. Who knows what we’ll come up with?’’

“It’s taking on a life of its own, with tentacles reaching out to so many different groups,’’ Cappers said. “It’s going in the direction of the original ridiculous idea we started with. . . . It’s going to be just really exciting. If you can hum to the radio, just go ahead and sing with us.’’

Johanna Seltz can be reached at seelenfam@verizon.net.

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