In 1977, Frances Motyca Dawson had a vision of bringing choral music to Columbia, Maryland. Since then, as Columbia has grown to the second largest city in Maryland, CPC has become an integral part of the performing arts in Howard County and the surrounding area. Best known for its yearly performance of Handel’s “Messiah” at holiday time, it has continually brought both religiously inspirational concerts to the area, along with many wonderful secular musical performances to their audiences.
Today CPC stands tall even after the trouble all arts groups faced due to the pandemic. Maestro Dawson is the reason they managed to not just survive but flourish all these decades. Sadly, all good things come to an end. Maestro Dawson has decided to step down this year and will be transferring her baton and leadership to Laura Lee Fischer who has been sharing the artistic responsibilities and conducting duties of the group over the last few years.
Columbia Pro Cantare will be sending off Frances Motyca Dawson off will a well-earned celebration in May. It will be hard to say good-bye, but because of her dedication, CPC looks forward to years of future live concerts.
FRANCES MOTYCA DAWSON founded Columbia Pro Cantare in 1977 to provide performance opportunities for Howard County singers and to bring quality musical experiences to Howard County audiences. A holder of master’s and bachelor’s degrees in music from the Peabody Conservatory, she was musical assistant to Laszlo Halasz, former Director of the Peabody Opera Theatre, and pursued advanced studies at the Tanglewood Institute. Before founding Columbia Pro Cantare, she organized and directed the Louisville (Kentucky) Choral Arts Society, which received excellent critical notices. Frances Dawson also established PAVILION IN COMMON, which brought the Baltimore Symphony to the Merriweather Post Pavilion for four summers. In 1984 and 1989, she was awarded the Governor’s Citation for her contributions to the arts in Maryland. In 1987, she conducted the chorus, orchestra, and soloists in the “Hail Columbia” concert at Merriweather Post Pavilion, which celebrated Columbia’s 20th birthday. In the fall of 1991, she presented the Dvořák Festival in Washington, honoring the composer’s 150th anniversary with a seminar at the Kennedy Center and concerts there and at the National City Christian Church.
Frances Dawson was awarded the Howie by the Howard County Arts Council in October 1991 for her lifetime artistic contributions to the community. In March 2006, she was inducted into the Howard County Women’s Hall of Fame for her significant contributions as an arts leader to the improvement of life for the citizens of this region. From 1990 to June 2007, she was also the director of the Upper School Chorus at Glenelg Country School. In April 2013, Mrs. Dawson received the Peabody Alumni Achievement Award Recognizing Outstanding Contributions to Music in Maryland. Frances Dawson was honored in March 2017 by Her Mind magazine as one of the “Founding Mothers” of Columbia.
When you started Columbia Pro Cantare in 1977, what was your vision for the group and how has your experience compared with that vision?
The vision for the group started in Boston. My husband was finishing his residency as a hematologist at Harvard, and I read about Jim Rouse and his plans for Columbia. I was so impressed with his ideas. One of them, the Pavilion that eventually became Merriweather Post Pavilion, reminded me of Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
While Ben and I wanted to make Columbia our home after he finished his residency, we first spent some time in Fort Knox Kentucky, where he was assigned as a doctor in the army. While there, I formed a chorus composed of men from Fort Knox and women from Louisville. The group received excellent reviews, and I was surprised at how successful the blending of this disparate group of people was.
Eventually, the dream of living in Columbia became a reality. It was a new city with a large influx of people and the opportunity to experience and create new cultural experiences. With Tanglewood in mind, I approached the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra about adding choral music to their summer performances at the Pavilion. The initial performance with the BSO was the event around which Pro Cantare was born. With the help of the choral director at Wilde Lake, former students were approached, auditions were held and a core group of singers who were enthusiastic about singing classical music formed. Following the summer event, Pro Cantare began a year-round schedule of performances.
Another desire of mine was to do music that wasn’t the same as all the other choruses—to introduce and perform a variety of music. Because my grandparents were Czechoslovakian, I was especially drawn to Eastern European music, including that of Czechoslovakia. The Pro Cantare was able to secure funding from the National Endowment of the Arts because of our unusual repertoire. We performed Czech and Polish music never heard before in this country. The chorus went along for the ride, learning to sing the pieces in the original languages.
The chorus lived up to the potential I originally envisioned. The biggest challenge was funding. Support from the Maryland State Arts Council was crucial to our success.
In your tenure with Columbia Pro Cantare what were some of your personal highlights?
A performance of Polish Sacred music at the Holy Rosary Church in Baltimore drew people from three states, filled the church with people standing outside—2,000 attended the event. Lech Walesa was prominent at the time organizing workers and it was inspirational to the local Polish community. The prayer we sang for Poland reminds me of the “Prayer for Ukraine,” which was part of a Pro Cantare concert last year: countries battling oppression.
Another highlight was the “Dvořák Requiem” performance in Washington D.C. at National City Christian Church. A great piece of music and room for a full orchestra, and music that was rarely, if ever, performed in the U.S.
We had the opportunity to sing at the official opening of the Harbor Place with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, nationally televised on PBS. The women had to get blue blouses to show up better on television.
Can you tell us about one or two performances that were the most fulfilling for you?
The “Hail Columbia” concert, to celebrate Columbia’s 20th Anniversary. We performed “Lincoln Portrait” by Copland with Jim Rouse as the narrator. I picked that piece because it described exactly what Jim Rouse did for Columbia. He talked to experts in many areas, in the US and abroad, about what makes a good community. Green space was one of them, interdenominational churches, multiple use facilities. Equal rights for all. So much fun to work with! I told him “I’ll cue you for each narration section with my left hand-when I point to you, it’s your turn.”
Doing Handel’s “Messiah” with orchestra and professional soloists year after year, with the warm response from the community and the singers as well, was very rewarding. Though I originally didn’t want to do music that everyone performed, the “Messiah” proved a worthy exception.
What would you like to see happen with Columbia Pro Cantare in the future?
Do you have any concerns after you leave? I’d like to see a continuation of the performance of multiple styles of choral literature. We are fortunate to have Laura Lee Fischer ably leading the chorus forward.
What will you miss the most when you retire?
I’ll miss getting to know the new singers.
If you would thank Frances Motyca Dawson for all her years of leadership, Columbia Pro Cantare asks that you think about making a donation to the group in her name.
Their final concert this season will be “American Tapestry” on Saturday, May 6, 2023. You can find out information about the performance and purchase tickets at their website.