As Chicago Chorale prepares for its first rehearsal of the 2013-14 season, the day after tomorrow, I find it instructive-- and enjoyable-- to look back on our beginnings.
We held our first rehearsal just twelve years ago, on Tuesday night, October 9, 2001, with twenty-one singers present. By the following June, we had grown to twenty-eight members; of those twenty-eight, only four did not have some affiliation with The University of Chicago, and all but six lived in Hyde Park. Auditions were handled by word of mouth: one heard the word, opened ones mouth, and was in. What we shared in common was a love of great choral repertoire, and a desire to sing this repertoire with a group of like-minded individuals. We had no particular strategy for growth and development into the future; we grew as our appetite, reach, and resources allowed and dictated.
We have grown in size; we have experimented with various subsets of the group for specific repertoires; we have tried music from a wide variety of historical periods. Inevitably, we have narrowed our focus, over time, as we have discovered what we are best at, and what our audiences most appreciate hearing. We struggle with these latter considerations: we want to be free to take risks with repertoire and to pull our audience, perhaps kicking and screaming, along with us; and we want to be able to pay our bills. Our geographic and educational base has also grown: only ten of the original group still sing with us, out of sixty members, and only half of those sixty have any affiliation with The University of Chicago. One-third of the singers live in Hyde Park; others commute from as far away as St. Charles, Naperville, Evanston, Flossmoor, and Northern Indiana.
Critic Lawrence Johnson has written of us, “Chicago Chorale is not a high-profile presence on the local music scene with Bruce Tammen’s ensemble only doing two or three programs a year.” He is right about this; we are somewhat ambivalent about how much work we can do, and do well, while continuing to have lives outside of music. We are amateurs: we sing for love, and we earn our living wages elsewhere. But the context of Johnson’s remark is crucial: four lines later, he writes, “Chicago Chorale delivered a glowing, idiomatically Russian and beautifully sung performance. This revelatory and transcendent evening at Hyde Park Union Church was the top performance of 2012.” Though we don’t put a lot of time and effort into raising our profile, and perhaps don’t care so very much about it, we do care, deeply, about the quality and integrity of our work, and about our personal satisfaction in doing that work.
Earlier on, we often discussed the problem with which this stance presents us: how do we justify ourselves, when we ask for money from private donors and corporations—why should they care to fund a group of highly educated culture nerds who seek primarily to please themselves? We don’t worry about this quite so much, now: we have become convinced that audiences enjoy and profit from our hard work, high standards, and self-satisfaction. We have come to believe that our love of what we do, our pleasure in doing it, and our basic faith in the enterprise, is Good—with a capital G—and that our world is enhanced by it. Through these twelve years we have retained this core raison d’etre: we maintain our right, even obligation, to tackle the most important music our there, with the belief that great music, and great singing, is too important to be left to the professionals.