Home News and Features Deep in Song: A Conversation with Onion River Chorus’ Richard Riley

Deep in Song: A Conversation with Onion River Chorus’ Richard Riley

Richard Riley takes the helm as artistic director at Onion River Chorus in Montpelier. Courtesy photo.
Traditional Ukrainian music embodies the soul of the nation and its songs offer a history of the land as well as its people’s resilience, which is why Richard Riley, the artistic director of Onion River Chorus, invites the community to celebrate Ukrainian choral music in “Deep in Song” — “hlyboko v pisni” — at Montpelier High School on April 16. 

Riley is a familiar face to the Vermont choral scene. He has been the artistic director of the Burlington Choral Society since 2012. The East Montpelier resident has been involved with Onion River Chorus since 2013. He has also been supporting the Montpelier-based choral group as a guest conductor since the death of Larry Gordon in 2021. 

Last month, Onion River Chorus announced Riley’s engagement as their artistic director. 

Riley, who will conduct 100 singers of the Onion River Chorus and the Burlington Choral Society in April, answered a few questions from The Bridge about the joint performance and carrying on traditions through sharing music from Ukraine and continuing Gordon’s legacy.

How would you describe what you do as an artistic director for ORC? 

Riley: “We prepare two programs a year, and Onion River gives two performances in each one of those programs. So you would say, ‘OK, four concerts a year, that doesn’t sound like much.’ But what’s very characteristic of the experience of singing in a chorus is that you rehearse weekly, for typically anywhere from 12 to 20 weeks, and you’re returning to that rehearsal so that the music comes to feel truly your own after you’ve done it for a while. Many of the singers don’t read music totally independently of being in a group where everyone is trying to learn music at the same time. So it’s a way to take in the music if the notation of music isn’t necessarily the most natural thing. And when you get together with singers for 12, 13, 14, 15 weeks in a row, you develop very warm relationships with all the group, especially those who sit near you. It’s incredible how intimate it is for people to be singing, sitting next to each other. Singing has always taken the human species into a very interesting social world. But that’s the core of Onion River Chorus. It’s not exclusively the concerts, it is the experience in rehearsals.”

You are currently preparing a concert of Ukrainian music for a joint performance by the Burlington Choral Society and Onion River Chorus. What can audiences expect? 

Riley: “My orientation is the preparation of the music so, by concert time, all the singers feel like they truly know in a way that will make them excited to share it with an audience. In this particular program, that we’re preparing now of Ukrainian music, there are 19 different pieces in this program, which is just mind boggling to consider. The thing that makes this particular program quite unique is that the Ukrainian choral tradition, of which there truly is one, many more of the pieces are unaccompanied than are accompanied, and many of them are relatively short because they are folk music or they’re church music. … We have a good number from the folk music tradition, the sacred music tradition, and a couple of new pieces that were written especially for the Ukrainian choral tradition this year.”

What excites you about the Spring program?

Riley: “There’s a very strong folk music tradition from Ukraine and a strong sacred music tradition. And I’m incredibly excited about the two new pieces that we’re going to do, because both of them were written for the reality of what Ukraine is experiencing this year. And that makes the reference to music from centuries ago all the more interesting. Then the music from a long time ago can be compared with the music that was written this year, because of what’s been happening in Ukraine.”

What is your vision for this organization’s future programming? 

Riley: “Onion River Chorus is not auditioned and that has been part of the miracle of what it has been for so many singers in this area for so many years. Larry did not want to have a group that had any barriers to anyone participating. If they wanted to participate, they just needed to come and become immersed in the concerts. Immersion for someone who wasn’t auditioned meant coming to a lot of rehearsals. … for Larry it was just being together, doing music together. That was what engaged him, independently. What Onion River became is a chorus where many people came to be engaged with Larry over a long number of rehearsals to produce a concert that extended everybody’s experience, even past what they thought was possible, just because they had the guts to do it. And that’s a tradition that I very much hope I can keep alive and well.”

Onion River Chorus and Burlington Choral Society will present “Deep in Song,” music from and to Ukraine, at 7:30 p.m. on April 15, at the Elley-Long Music Center in Colchester, and April 16, at 4 p.m. at Montpelier High School. Tickets are available at sevendaystickets.com and at the door. Adult tickets $25; 18 and under free.