Liberation Song

Custodian With a dry mop in a hallway

Choral Arts Society of Frederick Prepares for Concert in Normandy

By Colin McGuire, Photography by Turner Photography Studio

When the Choral Arts Society of Frederick departs on June 1 for France, where it will perform as part of tribute ceremonies for this year’s D-Day remembrances, it will, by most all accounts, mean something special to each person who embarks on the journey. But when Ruth Howell, one of the group’s longest-tenured members, talks about it, the emotion in her words is palpable.

“You can’t stand at Normandy and not be changed,” she says, her voice cracking as she reminisced on performing there a decade ago. “It’s an amazing place. You can’t describe it. I’m not even a military person. I had friends who served there and when you stand on that beach …”

She takes a moment to compose herself before continuing.

“It’s just an astounding experience,” she says. “I’m really grateful we were chosen to do this. It’s a huge deal.”

To understand how far the Choral Arts Society has come in order to land such a special performance, it’s best to talk to the troupe’s artistic director, Lynn Staininger. Currently in her 19th year at the Choral Arts Society, she initially moved to Frederick from Arizona and began a landscaping business with her sister. She had been out of the arts for about a year, after taking a job at Frederick Community College teaching music theory, she ultimately found herself being lured back toward singing and performing.

“The D-Day performance is this weird, little culmination of many, many seeds planted in many different gardens and this being the unexpected flower that pops out,” Staininger explains. “It’s probably the biggest choral performance I’ve been asked to provide a choir for.”

Indeed, receiving the honor has a hint of serendipity. Not only does this year mark the 79th anniversary of the day the Allies began to liberate Europe from Nazi Germany in World War II, but it also happens to be the Choral Arts Society’s 79th anniversary as well. With roots that date back to 1925, the society was formally recognized in late 1944 before a first rehearsal was organized at Winchester Hall in January 1945.

According to the society’s history, the group had as many as 80 members throughout the 1940s before it hit a low of about 12 singers by the late 1950s. It wouldn’t be until the mid-1960s that the troupe built its membership up to 60 members and by the time 1985 rolled around, that group decided to officially take on the Choral Arts Society of Frederick moniker. Today, it typically organizes two to three concerts a year, though the tour of France in association with the D-Day remembrances holds a special amount of weight.

The process of getting here came unexpectedly and began with an email Staininger received from a retired master sergeant in the U.S. Army. The group had been blindly nominated to perform during the 2023 festivities and, after being vetted and scouted, the veteran said the group earned the nomination. Not only was the proposition a shock, but it also provided its share of difficulties the group would have to overcome in order to make the trip a reality.

“It became instantly clear that this was a completely different invitation from anything we had received in the past,” Staininger recalls. “We are a not-for-profit organization, so we knew we’d have to raise money in order for us to go, so I told him he had to give me a week to see if we could figure it out. I took the invitation to the board and they said, ‘Heck yeah, we’re going to D-Day and we’re going to make this work.’ When I called him back and told him we could do it, he said, ‘This will be the event that will change your life forever.’”

The group is planning to send about 45 members, with the roster featuring a mixture of choral veterans and local college students from FCC and Hood College.

One of those members will be Sharon Searfoss, who also serves as the Choral Arts Society’s president. Searfoss, who has been singing on and off for the past decade, says the group convenes once a week for about three hours to rehearse in preparation for the trip. Though she insists she isn’t nervous about heading to France, she noted that it will have special meaning for her because of relatives who had military experience in Europe.

“My grandfather on my dad’s side was one of the mechanics who fixed and prepared planes for D-Day operations,” Searfoss says. “He was the musician of the family—he sang in a barber shop quartet and out of all the grandchildren, I was the one who went into music, so I have his pitch pipe. It’s going to be a really special thing to be able to go over there and reconnect with my grandfather that way.

“And the pitch pipe,” she continues. “I’m taking it with me.”

Having the opportunity to perform at Normandy on D-Day pop up so quickly, Staininger admits that the immediate focus for the organization has been, and will continue to be, on making sure it can raise enough money to ensure that those who want to be part of the trip can be part of the trip. A pair of concerts scheduled for May 12 and 13 at the Jack B. Kussmaul Theater on the FCC campus highlight the final fundraising push before the group departs.

Beyond the D-Day performance, Staininger doesn’t speculate on what the future holds for the Choral Arts Society, noting only that she doesn’t plan on leaving any time soon and she couldn’t be happier with how her reign as artistic director has turned out thus far.

“I can say that over the past seven to 10 years, the health of the organization has become really strong,” Staininger says. “I know that long after I’m not the artistic director anymore, they will continue to exist and attract great singers and community members, so as a legacy, I don’t think you could want more. What we are about to do is so unlike every other tour. It gives me goosebumps just thinking about it and I can’t imagine the stories we’ll have when we come home.”

As for Howell, she adds that being part of both the trip to France and the Choral Arts Society of Frederick means so much more than merely reading music from a page.

“When I went over there in 2019, there were veterans in their late 80s, some in wheelchairs, some with medals on,” she says. “I looked at them and thought about what had happened, what they did. Then, you look at those cliffs and you realize all those men were sitting ducks. That’s what strikes me the most.

“The music is great fun,” she adds, “but this history is what makes what we’re about to do so unique and so important.”

Frederick Magazine