Ten Years of Growth and Change

Chicago Chorale happened because I was unemployed and needed something to do, and friends encouraged me to take the risk.  I had been away from Hyde Park and my position as Director of Choral Activities at the University of Chicago for five years; but singers who had formerly sung in my choirs, as students, were still in the area, and several responded positively to my proposal that we form a new group.   Nineteen of them gathered Tuesday evening, October 9, 2001, at the Lutheran School of Theology, for the first rehearsal of what we were already calling “Chicago Chorale.”  I had arranged, even before hearing the group, a first “gig” for us:  an Advent Lessons and Carols service on Sunday, December 9, at the Church of Saints Peter and Paul, 3745 S. Paulina Street.  Several other singers joined us subsequent to this performance; by our third concert, June 2, 2002, we had grown to twenty-eight singers.  By 2004 we had grown to fifty singers; we reached our current membership level, sixty, in 2006, and have held steady since.

My conducting experience had been almost entirely on the college/university level, and Chorale’s earlier singers were familiar with me from that context. I knew the general repertoire and style of programming common to college choirs, and was fully committed to a schedule which followed the rhythms of the academic calendar and the Christian liturgical year.  As a singer, I had been exposed to a broader repertoire than that familiar to many of my conducting peers—I had extensive experience in early music, as well as in symphonic repertoire, and my programming reflected that.  I continued, though, to program following the basic pattern I had learned:  something early, something Romantic, something contemporary, and an emotionally uplifting, quasi-popular final group.  Sixteen to twenty pieces in all, mostly (if not entirely) a cappella. This procedure works very well in a college/university setting, where turnover amongst singers is constant, and the conductor has the responsibility to expose his students to a broad range of good, standard repertoire, as an essential component of their musical education.  Performance standards are not unimportant; but the conductor is expected to make the most of the singers that come his way, and justifies much of his product with such phrases as “educational value,” “exposure to world cultures,” fulfilling community experience,” and “giving everyone a chance to sing.”  A seventy-voice university chorus sings Josquin, Palestrina, Brahms, Rachmaninoff, Poulenc, and Andre Thomas on the same program, with the same singers, the same sound, and pretty much the same stylistic approach throughout the program, and the listener accepts this—“oh those lucky kids, they are exposed to such a broad spectrum of great music!”

Chorale followed this model for a few years, and I became increasingly uncomfortable with it.  I loved the music; I didn’t love the programming.  I wanted to move beyond this—to find a particular and special niche for our organization.

For example: a group of sixty singers can’t compete with small, specialized early music groups in the city-- but I did not want to give up that wonderful earlier repertoire, which is so important to me and to some of our singers:  so about five years ago we began to experiment with forming a smaller ensemble out of especially appropriate singers from the larger group, for special performances. Each year this group shrinks in size, as the singers become more competent and comfortable; currently, I limit the size to twelve singers, who are becoming more and more idiomatic with experience and pressure.

Similarly: sixty singers, though a lot of people, are not always enough for our needs, when it comes to major works, which are also a staple of our repertoire.  In 2009 we added men for our Rachmaninoff Vespers concert; in 2010 we added singers in all sections for the Mahler 8th Symphony. I plan to do the same next spring, when we present the Beethoven Missa Solemnis at Orchestra Hall.  As well, I have been encouraged by Chorale’s overall growth in confidence and musical level, to program larger, longer works, which break up the succession of smaller works I describe above, and challenge both the choir and the audience in a different way. I find this enables a level of satisfaction which is very different from that which one feels at the completion of the quasi “recital” represented by the normal college choral concert.

Thirty-three of our singers are going to Spain and France next month-- a balanced group, but half the size of our core ensemble.  We have rehearsed since early April, learning to sing our familiar repertoire as a fundamentally new and different choir.  Inevitably, more is required of each singer in a smaller group; and this challenges the participants to re-imagine their individual roles, and grow.  I personally have been very stimulated by this experience.  We have chosen our tour repertoire carefully, staying away from big pieces—i.e., double choir, 12-voice, etc—which could go haywire in the unfamiliar, extremely reverberant acoustics we are likely to encounter along the way; in this sense, our tour program is more like our older style of program.  I am confident, though, that it will be both entertaining and inspiring;  Chorale is sounding great on it!

These changes—contraction, expansion, cherry-picking amongst the members for a more homogeneous type of singer, expansion of repertoire-- have been a big break with the past, when the “sanctity” of the core ensemble has been primary.  These procedures are still in the experimental stages, and I watch closely to see what effect they will have on the central morale of the ensemble.  One thing is indisputable:  we gain musical validity through doing this, and increase both the breadth, and the musical level, of Chorale’s contribution to Chicago’s musical scene.