For the last decade of the 20th century and the whole of this 21st century, Eleanor Kenitzer has been the pulsing heart of a musical experience in Nevada County and beyond. The singing of gold miners who came from Cornwall had been heard in these parts for 90 years. It was Eleanor who helped bring it back to life, first in the Cornish Carol Choir and then the Grass Valley Male Voice Choir. And now she’s stepping down as director of the Male Voice Choir.
In these years she has brought to life a tradition that has rung throughout villages and towns in Cornwall and now sings out in Nevada County communities. The Grass Valley Male Voice Choir and Eleanor Kenitzer have been joined at the heart of who we are as a community.
Reports from the Choir’s several trips to sing in Cornwall are that Cornish audiences are amazed that American men can sing so well, especially when signing traditional Cornish music. But Eleanor has music in her bones, and some of her methods proved instructive to the Cornish groups. She holds the title of Bard of Cornwall, an award bestowed for her services in helping maintain the “national Celtic spirit of Cornwall.”
With Eleanor, what you see is what you get. She has no pretense. What appear to be “off the wall” comments are often right to the point. She is outspoken – you don’t have to wait around to learn what she thinks or feels about something.
When concert time arrives, she puts on her show face, reaching out to everyone in the audience to make contact. She’s folksy in introducing music to an audience and the long-time members of our audiences love it; some traditionalist singers squirm.
Her knowledge of music is deep and wide – musically sophisticated, but by no means stuffy or overly pedantic. She’s just folks, and she had followers who were sure to come whenever and wherever we sing.
She acknowledged the talents/experience of choir members, enlisting some to do solo parts, or introduce songs. When a choir member made a suggestion, she listened. The suggestion may or may not have resulted in a change. Eleanor was in charge in all things musical. If a singer had a complaint, her stock answer was “watch the director. I won’t direct it exactly the same every time, so WATCH! I’ll direct it as it fits right when we’re singing it.”
In my fourteen years, we have sung a variety of music. Personal favorites of mine are Take Me Home with the haunting memory of a Cornish boy leaving home and returning, the raucous and fun Christmas in About Three Minutes, and Shall We Gather at the River, Darryl Crawford’s arrangement of an American classic. There were Broadway favorites, African American spirituals, and some traditional and classical religious music.
Among the thirty-five men in the Choir, Eleanor was one of two women regularly present. She could mix it up with us and often joked about having dozens of “choir husbands.” (The other woman was Karen Driscoll, for many years our much-loved accompanist, and now Janet Rossman.)
Eleanor has remained in contact with retired choir members, their wives and families. She’s been the point person in remembering those who are ill, are having surgery or have died, the thread that connects who and what we are now to who and what we have been in years past. We’ll see how a new thread may be woven as the future unfolds.
As to retiring as Male Voice Choir Director, Eleanor’s attitude seems to be that all things come in their time and now is the time for her and for the Choir. Singing is indeed deep in the heart of human beings, pulsing in our blood. There’s a reason the Grass Valley Male Voice Choir sings at each concert, “What Would I Do Without My Music?”