Drivers crossing the Delaware River on Route 1 can’t help but notice a nine-foot-tall neon sign on the Lower Trenton Bridge that states “Trenton Makes and the World Takes,” and one of the city’s finest gifts to its neighbors is the Capital Singers of Trenton.
Though the choral group is most often heard performing at cultural and historical sites around its namesake city, such as the City Museum at Ellarslie and the William Trent House, the group will travel to Princeton on Friday, November 13, for a Veterans Concert at St. Paul’s Roman Catholic Church. Following closely after Veterans Day, the concert will honor our country’s war veterans with “an evening of patriotic and sacred music,” and the $10-per-ticket proceeds will benefit the Wounded Warrior Project.
The group’s selections will range from a medley of “Songs from the American Revolution” to the more contemporary “For the Fallen” and “Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep.” Also appearing with the Capital Singers will be the Broad Street Brass, which will perform patriotic selections such as “Songs from the Civil War,” “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” “My Lord What a Morning,” and “Liberty Bell March.” The Travis Manion Battalion of the U.S. Naval Sea Cadet will perform a flag ceremony.
The concert also marks the beginning of the 10th anniversary season for the Capital Singers of Trenton, says artistic director and conductor Richard Loatman, who recalls the group’s beginnings.
In 2005 he was asked to put together a Christmas concert at St. James Roman Catholic Church in Trenton by Nancy Paolini, currently a board member of the Capital Singers and the director of music at Incarnation – St. James Parish. He assembled 10 to 15 singers. The concert was well-received and the group felt encouraged to continue.
“So the next year we invited some more friends, either students of mine or people that I had done shows with, friends of friends, and we did another concert. And that was the beginning of Capital Singers,” Loatman says.
“And then we realized, what happens when we start to lose members, either because they become ill or whatever. So we started the Trenton Community Singers, and the Trenton Community Singers was a larger group — that was about, at that time, maybe 50. Capital Singers ended up being about 24 or 25.”
In 2014 the two groups merged and now perform together. In the early days, the groups rehearsed at St. James, but later moved to other locations.
“We’ve been at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Washington Crossing. We’ve been at Incarnation (Ewing), which is the sister church to St. James. And now we are at Sacred Heart. We wanted to be in downtown Trenton since we are the Capital Singers of Trenton. It’s taken us a while,” Loatman says.
Rehearsing in Trenton makes life easier for the conductor, who lives in the city with his partner of 26 years, David Abers, in a three-story renovated home not far from where the group rehearses at Sacred Heart Church.
“Sometimes we have to move pianos, and we have a library of all our music in my basement here. So we have to put all the music together and take it. And it was sometimes schlepping from one end of the city to the other,” he recalls.
The Capital Singers rehearse every other week for three hours. The group invites new members to join in September and January. No auditions are required. Members range from high school to post-retirement age. The number of members is typically around 80 to 90, depending on availability and whether a member is on leave for health reasons, Loatman says.
The group’s stated mission is to “promote the art of choral singing, enrich the cultural life of New Jersey, and serve as goodwill ambassadors for the city of Trenton through concerts, special performances, and community outreach.”
“We’re a service organization as well as a performing organization,” Loatman says. “Our goal is to provide good choral music for Trenton and to educate people in choral music, and to work with the political people in the area if and when they need us.”
Capital Singers partnered with Marge Caldwell-Wilson, councilwoman for the North Ward, who helps narrate the group’s CD, titled “Legacy 2014: A Year with Capital Singers of Trenton and Trenton Community Singers,” which contains songs recorded at Sacred Heart Church, Ellarslie Museum, Trinity Cathedral, and Trent House.
“We picked four areas of Trenton to record in to highlight Trenton and its history and its art and music,” Loatman says.
This will be the third Veterans Day concert at St. Paul’s for the Capital Singers, which also performed there in 2012 and 2013. Last year the group gave a Veterans Concert in the South Jersey town of Bridgeton, where Loatman was born and spent his childhood.
“That concert was for my old music teacher at my high school as well as a veterans’ concert, as he was a vet. So we took that concert down there to Berean Baptist Temple in my home town to a full audience, which was lovely — ‘the music boy comes home’ type of thing,” he recalls.
Loatman’s mother was his first piano teacher and musical influence. He says that she was an organist in her church from the age of 13 until her retirement from this position two years ago in her early 80s. His father worked as a handyman, painter, and electrician on properties in his home town and at the Jersey Shore, and passed on his building and design skills to his son.
These are evident in the renovation of the conductor’s Mill Hill home, which he obtained in 1982 for $100 through the city’s homestead program, and in which he has installed a three-story spiral staircase surrounded by built-in shelves housing an astounding array of music books, albums, and sheet music, as well as the couple’s collections of New York World’s Fair memorabilia and almost 500 colorful painted wooden nutcrackers, assembled on one shelf in anticipation of the holiday season. There are also offices and a voice studio.
Loatman attended Westminster Choir College in Princeton and settled in Princeton after he graduated in 1969 with a piano major and voice minor in music education. He took some graduate courses at Westminster and obtained his master’s degree in choral conducting from the College of New Jersey.
He taught music at Princeton High School in the 1970s and at Johnson Park Elementary School. He then taught at Notre Dame High School in Lawrenceville for 15 years and at Eldridge Park Elementary in Lawrenceville for 13 years. When he retired from the Lawrence School District, he taught at the International Charter School on Grand Street in Trenton for three years.
During the 1970s Loatman became musical director at Dutch Neck Presbyterian Church in West Windsor, where he served for 23 years. While simultaneously conducting the church choir and conducting sections of the well-regarded Princeton High School choir, Loatman first developed his interest in choral conducting.
He has also found time to serve as artistic director for the New Jersey Gay Men’s Chorus from 1998 to 2001 and to direct musical productions for Rider College, Mercer County Community College, the Pennington Players, Princeton Community Players, and Bristol Riverside Theater.
It was toward the end of his career in music education that Loatman founded the Capital Singers. He is aided by the group’s assistant conductor, Ellen Dondero. Under their direction, the Capital Singers have performed various styles of music over the past 10 years.
“We have done music of all kinds,” Loatman says. “I try to do mostly classical music of some kind, whether it’s early — we’ve done Gregorian chant, we’ve done early medieval music and Renaissance music. We do some contemporary music. I like to also do some music that some people would consider schmaltzy, but crowd pleasers.
“We, in a concert, always do something that is either patriotic or heartwarming or has a great message, rather than having a lot of music that’s very intellectual and esoteric — not everybody can enjoy that. At the end of our 2016 season we’re doing a holiday concert that goes from classical to gospel. The first half will be all classical. The second half will be folk songs, spirituals, and gospel, and we have two guest artists, Deborah Ford and Keith Spencer, who do gospel music well.”
The group’s repertoire has evolved since its founding to include performing with orchestras, which presents its own challenges.
“When we started we thought we would just be basically an a cappella group with a little bit of accompanying,” Loatman says. “Then we did more accompanying, so we had two accompanists. In 2011 we did the premiere of Karl Jenkins’ ‘Stabat Mater’ in this area with the Sinfonietta Nova at St. David the King Church in West Windsor. That was a big to-do. Gail Lee is the conductor of Sinfonietta Nova, and it’s a fine orchestra, very fine.”
The group will perform a Christmas Concert with the Warminster Symphony, conducted by Joseph Lovecchio, on Saturday, December 5, at William Tennent High School in Warminster, Pennsylvania, and will return to St. David the King Church to perform John Rutter’s “Requiem” with Sinfonietta Nova on Saturday, March 19, 2016.
Singing with a symphony orchestra creates challenges for both the conductor and the chorus. First of all, there is the need for the symphony and choral conductors to watch each other and make sure they stay together. Then there is the challenge for both groups to find enough time to rehearse together, he says, as they are both community groups with volunteer members.
However, there are rewards that balance the difficulties. Loatman was asked what he enjoys most about conducting a community chorus. “I suppose it’s gathering all of these different experiences in music and putting them all together in a way that they will then follow what I wish and be happy with what they do,” he says.
“When you take a varied group from high school to retiring, with people who are somewhat educated or very educated in music, to people who are just regular old folk wanting to sing, and putting that all together and making that work, I think when you hear the Christmas portion of the CD that it’s quite good. So that’s where I get the gratification, being able to take people from wherever they are, making good music, and making them happy about making that music.”
Veterans Concert, Capital Singers of Trenton, St. Paul’s Roman Catholic Church, 214 Nassau Street, Princeton. Friday, November 13, 7:30 p.m. $10. 609-524-0507 or www.capitalsingers.org.