This article was originally published in the December 2017 Trenton Downtowner.
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.
The choir’s next big event, “Winter Songs Concert XI” on Sunday, December 10, at the Sacred Heart Church, celebrates Chanukah and Christmas. In addition to celebrating the holiday season, this concert is a commemoration: the last presentation by the group’s founder, music director, and conductor, Richard Loatman. Fittingly he will be joined by longtime associate conductor Ellen Dondero and incoming conductor Vinroy Brown Jr.
The group started in 2005 when Loatman 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,” says Loatman.
“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 28 years, David Abers, in a three-story renovated home not far from where the group rehearses at Sacred Heart Church.
‘you can go to Philadelphia, to Princeton, to New York to hear great music. But we want to provide that experience right in our home.’
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, 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.
Raised in Bridgeton, New Jersey, Loatman says his mother was his first piano teacher and musical influence. She was an organist in her church from the age of 13 until her retirement from this position four 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 served 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.
“We have done music of all kinds,” Loatman says about the group’s repertoire. “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.”
Looking at his effort, Loatman says, “I have always wanted to give my time, skills, energy, and my experience to the city in some way. The chorus has been a way to do that.
“As an audience member, you can go to Philadelphia, to Princeton, to New York to hear great music. But we want to provide that experience right in our home, right in our midst. That was my goal in forming the chorus, and I expect we will continue on that course, and contribute even more as we move forward.”
Winter Songs Concert XI, Capital Singers of Trenton, Sacred Heart Church, 343 South Broad Street. Sunday, December 10, 4 p.m. $15 to $22. 609-620-0160. capitalsingers.org.