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Wicker Park Choral Singers

Building community through choral music

Wicker Park Choral Singers is a Chicago-based all-volunteer choir dedicated to building community through choral music. 

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PART TEN: My Choir, Your Choir, Chicago's Choir: A History of Wicker Park Choral Singers, 2008 - 2012

“So that’s what you really like about your project, then?”  I asked.  “That you get to give back?  Engage people?” “Yeah, that’s definitely part of it,” Mark mused.  “But, you know, I also enjoy that at some point, after a few seasons of honing the choir, of honing our musicianship, it was really no longer just my choir.  It became our choir.  And it’s even becoming Chicago’s choir.  It belongs to everyone, even the audience.”

“You’ll have to explain that one.  I mean, I understand that the audience can enjoy the music, that’s fine, but how does the choir belong to them?”

He leaned forward. Angela leaned forward, too.  I hesitated and then joined the conspiracy. “The thing is,” Mark said, “everyone is a choral music fan.  They just don’t know it yet.”

I shook my head and turned another page in my notebook.  “I don’t buy it.”

Mark held up a hand.  “See, every new person we bring into the fold, every person who hears choral music for the first time, or chooses to support the choir, or even just learns something new about how music can sound…they get to hold and cherish and own that moment where we helped them expand their horizons, or where they supported us so we could expand ours.”

I was still suspicious.  “Can you prove it?  Have you seen this ‘ownership’ in action?”

“I’m glad you asked,” Angela said, rising to the challenge.  “Here’s your proof.”  She reached into her purse and pulled out a pamphlet, tossing it down on the table definitively.  “That’s the program for our ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ concert.”

I flipped it open, and scanned the first few pages as she talked it through.  “For starters, we took this concert right out to the public.  We partnered with Chris Jackson of the Jackson Junge Gallery to stage the event in a non-traditional location.  We hired an amazing caterer, Jason Shiver-Simpson of Stone Root Catering.  We sold tickets, we dressed up in our party best, we talked about art and music. I’m telling you, this was solid ritz.”

“Alright, I can believe that,” I nodded.

“And then the audience ownership,” she said.  “Well, we had a standard rep by then.  We had openers, closers, experimental music, fast and slow pieces.  And we decided to group pieces together by their type, three to a group, and sing little snippets of each piece to the audience as the night progressed.  Four rounds of snippet singing.”

“Why just snippets?  Why not sing the whole song.”

“Well, we wanted to create some mystery,” she shrugged a shoulder.  “And besides, if we sang the whole piece, then we would have just been telling the audience what to listen to.  No, this way, they got to decide which pieces intrigued them, and then vote on the piece they wanted to hear in its entirety.”

“Ohhh, so that’s how the audience…”

“Took ownership of the concert, yes,” finished Angela.  “They picked all the pieces they wanted to hear, and in the meantime, we walked around and mingled and talked about our choir and our music and asked them about their choices, and what about each piece had drawn them in.  And they came up with the most amazing things to say.  People immediately felt connected to the emotionality of a piece, or the pace of it, or the humor in it.  They were anticipatory.  They really, truly hoped they’d win the vote and get their piece on the program.  They owned their decisions.”

“Alright, well, that’s certifiably cool,” I said.  “You’ve convinced me.”

“I don’t think we can argue that the people at the concert were all brand new to choral music,” said Mark in reflection.  “But you know what?  We made you like the choir, didn’t we?”

I raised my eyebrows.  “Oh, well…I suppose in a way, that…”

“Admit it, you’re a choral music fan now.”

I scratched the back of my head.  “Well, I did like the recordings you gave me to listen to…and I did think the members I met were pretty interesting, so…”  I finally relented a smile.  “Yeah, I think I’m a choral music fan.”

Mark clapped his hands together in absolute triumph.  “I knew it!”

Angela’s mink let out a tiny hiccup and slid from the table, drunk as a skunk.  She sighed and picked the mink up off the floor, setting him around her shoulders.  His paws dangled down in blissful oblivion.  “You better be…” she said.

I cleared my throat.  “Well, I have more than enough for the radio installments, now.  The only thing left is to have you both in to the studio to do a bit of recorded interview…which I think…” I flipped open my pocket calendar.  “Yeah, I have you down here for next Tuesday.”

Angela looked at Mark, in cahoots about something or another.  “What…” I asked.  “Tuesday won’t work?”

“It’s not that.  Well, I have one last secret to share with you,” Angela said.  “It might surprise you.”

“After all this?  I doubt it.  But lay it on me.”

“Your boss, Stephanie Malmquist?”

“Yeah…” I said, growing wary.

“She’s in the choir.”

To Be Continued.....

PART NINE: My Choir, Your Choir, Chicago's Choir: A History of Wicker Park Choral Singers, 2008 - 2012

By the time I was ready to meet with “The Gentleman” and his “Lady,” again, I had encountered so many different kinds of choir members, my head was spinning.  Singing administrators, consultants, teachers, commodity traders, engineers, architects, MORE lawyers, hell…even a law enforcement official. It was completely fascinating to me.  I mean, Mark had said that his choir was an adoptive family, a community, but I had no idea that so many sorts would come out to audition—that so many people had hidden (or not so hidden) musical talents.  I told him as much over a round of drinks, back at the pub where it all started.

“I know,” he said.  “It’s completely amazing.  I mean, in the first round of auditions, we accepted 50% of the singers, and now we can only let about 10% of auditionees in to the group.  And the people who join us are just great.  They take on extra roles in the choir, they offer experience and expertise, and they really just provide a whole set of musical cornerstones.”

Angela set her hand over Mark’s and gave it a squeeze.  “He’s such an optimist.”

“Well, he has reason to be, I think,” I reviewed my scads of notes.  “Based on the choristers I talked to, the time they put in, the volunteer organizations that help you out…I figured you would have to kiss a lot of rings.  But it looks here as though everyone was just crazy generous.”

“That’s the weird thing about it all,” Mark scratched his head and then gave me an open-handed gesture of complaisance.  “The generosity was far more than I ever expected.  It feels great to be able to pay it forward, you know.”

I called for another round.  “How do you do that?  Pay it forward?”

Mark smiled.  Not a ‘the-guy-who-just-jumped-out-of-the-birthday-cake-plugged-the-right-mobster’ smile. A gen-u-ine grin from ear to ear.  “In any way I can.”

The whiskeys arrived.  I shoved the last sip of my first tumbler over toward Angela’s mink.  It stuck its head inside the glass.

*   *   *   *   *

Mark worked incredibly hard on his choir—paying it forward for their commitment and time and patience.  In conjunction with his day job (which requires 50+ hours of work a week) he quickly discovered that it would take him further hours of time, per song, outside of rehearsal just to be able to stand up in front of the choir and conduct with any sense of confidence.  Panache and go-getter attitude were only going to get him so far.  At some point he had to just go in front of a jury of his peers, some of whom had more conducting experience than him, and try to conduct accurately, mitigate chaos, value everyone’s opinions, overcome feelings of embarrassment, and learn to forgive himself for mistakes.  People dropped out from time to time, and he had to learn to not take it personally.  He had to combat friends at other times, while still maintaining relationships and building self-confidence.

All in all, he had to learn to meet the needs that were central to the choir and then ask other people to pay it forward, too—to add to the growing identity of the choir rather than finding fault with it.  To learn how to help, to fit in, and to advance the goals of the community.

And he had to pay it forward to the audience—to deliver on a solid performance at the end of each concert season in order to thank them for their generosity, support, enthusiasm.

Because, in the end, isn’t it really about them?  The audience?

Of course, the choral experience happens within the choir.  Each of the singers is, or should be, very passionate about their relationship to the music and to each other.  Give and take within the group is necessary because they are not soloists—that’s the whole point.  And they could very easily make music just for themselves.  They don’t have to make music in interaction with an audience for it to be enjoyable to make music.

But the audience makes the experience different.  They deserve to be a part of the music.  If trained singers can lose themselves in the notes and find a place of calm amidst the storms brewing in their heads, then imagine what music does for people who cannot read notes—who cannot make that music on their own when they need it most.  The choir gives a very simple and incredibly meaningful gift to the audience.  They give music.  And music never asks to be regarded as anything other than beautiful, even when, as Mr. Magnificent pointed out, it is difficult and full of atonal chord clusters in some Eastern European dialect.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When the choir started, the impetus was not the audience.  And now, it very much is.  The choral experience is not just for the choir, it’s for the public at large.  Such a challenge, and such a reward.

PART EIGHT: My Choir, Your Choir, Chicago's Choir: A History of Wicker Park Choral Singers, 2008 - 2012

My next visit was no less nerve-wracking.  It turned out that one of Chicago’s top lawyers moonlighted as a member of the choir.  I’d seen him before outside of the courthouse, but only from afar as I jostled with other reporters in the hopes of a statement.  And here I had a one on one audience.  I wondered momentarily if I could slip in a question about last week’s double homicide, but decided I should probably just stick to my script. I handed over my card to the clerk at the front desk and then headed upstairs under the escort of a guy who would give Mr. Magnificent a run for his money.  Another John at the door to the office plucked my notebook out of my hand and scanned my set of questions.  He nodded without expression and handed it back to me.  He pushed the door open.

Jon Schildt took one look at me, at my notebook and press badge, and spun his chair toward the window.  “No comment.”

I stopped in the middle of a gigantic Persian rug, shaded by a Swarovski chandelier.  “I’m here about the choir,” I said.

“Oh right.”  He swung the chair back toward me.  The lamps from the chandelier caught his suit and sent rays of light pin-wheeling away from his glittering houndstooth.  He pulled a gold pen out of his breast pocket and shoved a piece of paper across the desk.  “Sign that.”  He tossed the pen down.

“What’s this?”  No one had mentioned any contract when I called about the appointment.

“It’s a document stating that you will refer to me only by my alias so as to keep my dreadfully important work from being interrupted by silliness and nonsense and…reporters asking questions about my hobbies…”  He crossed his arms.  “I owed ‘The Gentleman’ a favor, or you wouldn’t even be here.”

I looked up from the contract in wide-eyed astonishment.  “You’re Billy Flynn?”

“Is it that hard to believe?”

“Yeah, ok, alright.”  I added my John Hancock to the contract and took a seat. Schildt seemed to relax a bit once he had my signature under lock and key, and headed over to his liquor cabinet for libations.

“So I have here that you joined at the very beginning of the third season of the choir,” I began the interview.

“I did.” He responded, measuring out the drinks.  “My first concert was ‘Star of Wonder’ performed on December 4th and 5th, 2010.  And then the following spring we sang a concert called ‘How Does Your Garden Grow?’  That was on the 9th and 10th of April.”  He brought our glasses over and set one before me.

“Pretty impressive, having all this stuff committed to memory.”  I noted.

“I had a clerk write it up for me.  I just memorized it, like any other self-respecting hotshot.”  He took a sip of scotch.  “Next you’re going to ask me about our ‘Assembling the Masses’ concert on July 9th and 10th of 2011, and ‘Eat Drink and Be Merry’ on December 10th and 11th, same year.”

“Alright, but those are just dates.  I’d like to see someone write out your opinion of these concerts.” I challenged.

“People write my opinions on things all the time.  I read them over breakfast.”  He looked smug.

“Well, I guess you can just give me those written opinions, and I’ll be on my way.”  I snapped my notebook shut.

“Oh, settle down, I’ll tell you something about choir, direct from me to you.”  I slowly opened my notebook, maybe looking a little smug myself.  “Please, I had this planned out from the get-go,” he read my expression. “You, dragging out my heart and soul.”

“That hard to find ‘em, eh?”

“Hilarious. No.  It’s just, you know, I can’t let it getting out that that grand piano over there isn’t just furniture.  I’m a music theory geek, you know that?  I accompany the choir sometimes.  Hell, I even enjoy it.”  He smiled at his piano like it was an old friend.

“So you do actually have fun, here?” I asked.

“Sure.  In fact, as a choir we had this one day of performances,” he sat up in his chair and leaned forward with glee. “So, we started at 7:30 AM singing a segment on the morning news, then we did a noon time concert at 4th Presbyterian on Michigan Avenue, then we caroled the same evening at Cloud Gate in Millennium Park, and THEN we had ourselves a choir Christmas party.  I had to do the whole thing incognito, of course, and it was completely crazy, but that was the most fun I’ve had in years.”

“Why don’t you want people to know that?”  I asked.  “Off the record.”

“Well, if it gets out how much I love an audience, people might start to think that I don’t practice law solely out of a genuine sense of human decency.”  He touched his hand to his heart, flashing a couple of rings.

“This is Waterford, right?”  I finished off my scotch and eyed the glass.

“I think we’re done here.”

 

To Be Continued......

PART SEVEN: My Choir, Your Choir, Chicago's Choir: A History of Wicker Park Choral Singers, 2008 - 2012

I took a day off between interviews and headed out a bit later in the day for my next two.  I had a meeting with a chorister whose day job was as school marm, and she had specifically requested that I show up in her classroom at 3:15 sharp.  Not a second sooner or later.  I polished my shoes and straightened up my bowtie and made sure I looked docile enough for a fourth grade classroom.  Didn’t particularly care to get my fingers rapped.  The note next to this miss’s name said “NICE,” but I wasn’t taking any chances. I showed at the appointed time and knocked on the slightly open door.

“Oh my goodness!  Oh goodness come in!”  I pushed the door open and stuck my head inside with a smile.  It faded.  One little boy sat on a stool with a bar of soap in his mouth.  Another was copying out lines on the board.  A third knelt on the ground in a pile of grits, a heavy book on his head.

“Here, come here and have a seat in front of my desk.”  I swept off my hat and cleared my throat and moved as quietly as I could to the chair.  Miss Reihsmann seated herself behind the desk in what I would only describe as a lordly manner and beamed down at me.  I pulled on my collar.

“Soooo….” She crooned.  “So you have questions?”

I had a number of questions by now…I glanced back over my shoulder at the little boy in the corner, poor sap, and then took out my notebook.  “Sure.  I hear you’re in on some of the second and third year activities of the choir, and I uh…I guess I was wondering…”  The little boy on the stool stared me down with desperation.  Get this soap out of my mouth he seemed to say.  Please for the love all things, get it out.

“You were wondering?” she prodded.

“Oh, um,” I stared at my notebook like it might save me.  Could it save me?  “Well, what sort of activities might those have been?”

“Well, let’s see, shall we?”  Miss Reihsmann pulled a calendar out of her desk marked 2009-10 and another 2010-11.  Both were littered with pictures of baked goods.  January was a cinnamon bun.  “So in my first year in choir, we did an absolutely lovely Christmas Rose concert on December 5, 2009.  And in the spring we undertook quite the ambitious little program entitled Dusk til Dawn, on March 27, 2010, with songs picked and handcrafted into sequence precisely in that order.”

“Got it. That order. Ambitious.”

“I also participated in a delectable concert we titled Angels and Demons, in two separate locations, on both July 7th and 10th of 2010.  And I partook in choir extravaganza with the Elgin Symphony Orchestra’s 65th Anniversary Concert, whilst I missed out on the choir’s opportunity to perform with the ever lovely and gracious Oprah Winfrey on September 14, 2010.”

“Are you...are you giving…” I trailed off, looking back at the words I’d underlined for emphasis.

“A vocabulary lesson?  Well, of course I am, you silly duck, musn’t miss an opportunity to learn.”  She grinned even wider.  “CHILDREN”

They responded with a chorus of “Yes, Miss Reihsmann?”

“What words did you learn just now?”

I was astonished as they all stood at attention and started to list off the vocabulary in exact order.  The little boy with the soap in his mouth pronounced the words a bit oddly as he curled his tongue around the suds, and the boy with the book and the grits hesitated on the final word before guessing at it with a side glance to the kid at the board.

“Billy!”  Miss Reihsmann jumped up from behind the desk.  She leaned directly into my space and glared over my shoulder.  “SPELL that last word.”

“Um…G-R-A-T”

“BACK ON THE GRITS BILLY” She seated herself behind the desk and smoothed her skirts.  “You may go,” she told the other two.  They raced out of the classroom.  “And that,” she told me with the same maniacal smile, “is how you teach children to be smart and nice.

“So,” I said, jumping up from my seat.  “I think I’ve got everything...yep.”

“Are you sure? Another question?  We would have had time for one were you not a minute late.”

“A minute late, you don’t say,” I started edging toward the door. “That means I’m a minute late to the next interview!  I really, uh…”  I realized I’d left my hat dangling on the arm of the chair.  I looked from the hat, to Miss Riehsmann, to poor little Billy.  “Have a hat, kid.”

I ran away.

 

 

To Be Continued....

"Walk Together, Children"by Moses Hogan - A Closer Look

Born in New Orleans in 1957, Moses Hogan was a world-renowned arranger of African American spirituals, a gifted pianist, a fine conductor, and a close friend of my mother’s. During his brief career, Hogan led choral workshops all over the world and published over seventy works. One of his most popular arrangements, the traditional spiritual, Walk Together, Children, has a substantial and controversial history.

Today, performers commonly interpret spirituals lightly by swinging the eighth note or by increasing the tempo. However, Moses Hogan, along with other African American choral leaders such as Anton Armstrong and Andre Thomas, strongly believe in preserving the essence of the spiritual—as songs passed down from earlier and darker times of African American enslavement. Some spirituals kept the pace while walking and dragging chains or while working. Others depicted celebration, perhaps at a revival meeting, or expressed the hope of an easier life in Heaven with families and homes reunited. In any context, these songs were serious pleas for survival and community support.

In October of 2001 Hogan worked with Nova Singers, a professional choir founded and directed by Laura Lane. At this point, Walk Together, Children was not yet published and the singers were working from copies of his manuscript. As the director’s ten-year-old daughter, I attended rehearsals on occasion, and I quickly developed a fascination for Hogan’s Southern, gentlemanly manners. They trickled into his rehearsal style, in his kind insistence that the singers embrace the feeling and the diction exactly as he intended. In a recent conversation with my mom, she reminded me of the specifics. Hogan was as adamant about accurate performance practice as he was about respecting how slaves might have sung the spiritual.

His arrangement of  Walk Together, Children is constructed around slow and unhurried walking. The strong beat feels like it is in a slow two, with leans on beats one and three. He wanted a rich, warm sound, and called for, “All of your vibrato! Let me have all of it!” Hogan was insistent that the diction be a Southern African-American accent, such as “don’ cha” and “ti-yer,” as indicated in the score. He wanted a dramatic, not energetic, slide into the final chord. The point was that even though the slaves were singing about walking without tiring, they were utterly exhausted and they needed to sing to go on.

Despite Moses Hogan’s efforts to educate the world about capturing the genuine atmosphere in a spiritual, some ensembles lighten the mood by swinging the beat and speeding up the tempo.  In 2011, Craig Hella Johnson released the CD “Sing Freedom! African American Spirituals,” with his distinguished ensemble, Conspirare. By swinging Walk Together, Children, Johnson faced censure from the choral community. It is indeed an issue of performance practice, and it was bold of Johnson to go against the grain.

Our interpretation of  Walk Together, Children will continue to grow as society evolves. Although this spiritual has dark roots, we honor its bright and progressive interpretation during the Civil Rights Movement. Even Moses Hogan, for as adamant as he was about proper performance practice, arranged this spiritual with the altered text in mind and added dynamics and harmonies that were certainly not included in the slaves’ songs. So, by swinging the eighth-note, we do not intend to dishonor Hogan’s beliefs. We are simply telling this story of hope for a better day to come with our modern-day context in mind.

 

PART SIX: My Choir, Your Choir, Chicago's Choir: A History of Wicker Park Choral Singers, 2008 - 2012

I made my way out of the banquet hall and hailed a cab. It was early in the day. I had time for another interview, and I was particularly curious about this one. I gave my driver the address, leaned back in my seat, and smiled to myself in amusement. The cab dropped me off a little while later, and I hopped down onto the pavement, greeted by a plethora of garish colors and animal smells. The circus. I laced my way through the cluster, evading an elephant, a few acrobats, and a monkey on a unicycle.

And then I found the tent I was looking for. “Matthew the Magnificent Man of Muscle!!!” There was nowhere to knock, so I just called out from the entrance.

“…Mr. Magnificent?”

“COME IN” said a deep booming voice. Jeez Louise, his voice alone was too big for the tent, how was he supposed to fit the rest of himself in it? I stepped inside.

Matthew stood up to greet me and extended his gigantic hand. “GOOD TO MEET YOU,” he cleared his throat. “Sorry, so used to shouting things. Good to meet you.”

“Likewise,” I managed, shaking his hand. “Not about the shouting, about the meeting,” I said nervously. “Sorry, it’s just…you could crush me.”

“So you’re here to talk about choir, eh?” he said, twirling his handlebar moustache.

“Yes,” I said, taking out my notebook. “And, my apologies, but I have to ask. How does a circus guy like you end up in a choir?”

He laughed. “Yeah, that’s a fair question. Well, to be perfectly honest, this is just my side job. I lift weights for fun and join the circus when it comes through town. By day I’m a high school music teacher.”

“You don’t say. I bet your students don’t give you any guff.”

“My rule is, you can’t mouth off to me if I can bench press you…” he paused and raised an eyebrow, waiting for my obvious question.

“Can you bench—”

“Yeah, all of ‘em,” he interrupted proudly.

“That’s only marginally terrifying,” I muttered. “Um, what can you tell me about choir?”

“Well, I joined pretty early on. The choir actually came and sang at my high school in January 2009, which was great. And we did a one year anniversary concert on July 11, 2009, which was…a little odd, you know. One year is not the time to start getting nostalgic.”

“Fair enough,” I said. “What can you tell me about being, you know, a big tough guy in a music ensemble?”

He waved his enormous arm in dismissal of my question. “The choir has never been about maintaining the status quo,” he said. “We always aim to break the mold, musically, and the members come from all over the place. It’s not just for professional musicians and geeks.”

“How do you break the mold?”

“Do you know how many languages I’ve sung in…?” he paused and raised an eyebrow again.

“How many lang—”

“Like eighteen.”

“That’s nutty,” I said, suitably impressed. “How else do you break the mold?”

“We just do all sorts of music. Pieces that have movement to them. Pieces that require us to split in half and sing back and forth to each other. Pieces that challenge the audience to think about how intricate and peculiar music can sound, and how that’s really wonderful.”

“What if the audience doesn’t want to be challenged?” I asked.

“Oh, we have great audiences that really appreciate the music Mark picks. Some of their favorite songs are the ones that are a little bit of an experiment or daring.” He laughed his booming laugh. “And we always reward their efforts with crowd pleasers.”

“Like?”

“Eric Whitacre. People love Eric Whitacre. Oh, and spirituals. We usually do a spiritual as an encore. We know what they come to hear. They want to know if Ezekiel saw that wheel…” he paused. The eyebrow.

I fell right into it. “Did he see—”

“Yeah, he totally saw it.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

I thanked Matthew for his time and stepped back out into the sun with two tickets to the circus in my jacket pocket. I glanced down at my list of names. This was getting interesting…

To Be Continued...

PART FIVE: My Choir, Your Choir, Chicago's Choir: A History of Wicker Park Choral Singers, 2008 - 2012

Joan was easy to track down.  Dame leaves a paper trail you could make an informative snowdrift out of—schedules here, rolodex there, lists of venues and vendors and appointments.  We walked as we talked.  Rather, I ran after her as she breezed through a pre-wedding set up, shouting directions between lines of conversation. “So what was your role in the choir when it first started?”

“Oh, I did a bit of everything,” she stopped to fix a flower arrangement.  “I handed out music, took attendance, no those go over there,” she bustled off and I raced after her.

“Why did you join?” I asked when she finally turned back to me.

“For camaraderie, really.  And because making music is amazing and fulfilling.  Although, I have to say I was nervous about that first performance, because we only had four tenors.”

“That’s not very many for a choir?”

“Depends on the size of the choir, I suppose,” she said thoughtfully.  “Anyway, we just needed more men in the choir generally.  Mark sent out hundreds of (Facebook) telegrams just begging people to join.  Imagine getting a telegram from some person you don’t know calling himself “The Gentleman.”  She laughed and then furrowed her brow in reflection.  “You know that was probably a bit creepy.”

“Perhaps,” I agreed.

“Well it worked, though, we started to gather more members.  No, the lights this way!”  She rushed off again and I tagged along.

“So what can you say you learned while you were in this choir?” I said, catching my breath.

“Oh lots of things,” she straightened a place card on a table and checked her schedule.  “Well, more so, Mark learned things.”

“Like?” I prompted, hoping she wouldn’t run away again.

“For one, you can’t save the program design for the night before the concert.  And you can’t do a choir concert built on only slow music, either.  Oh, and I finally convinced Mark that themed programs are actually a very good idea.”

“Themed programs?”

“Concerts that are designed to fit a certain idea or season.”

“Like Christmas?” I asked.

“That’s a popular one,” Joan nodded.  “And let me tell you what, people will absolutely riot if you do a Christmas-time concert that has no Christmas music on it.”

“Why on earth would you do a Christmas-time concert with no Christmas music?”

“Exactly.  Our third concert, December 6,2008 was sort of Winter themed plus Americana because it was an election year,” she clarified, “and we threw in an encore of Silent Night.  And then we did a transportation themed concert the following spring on April 4, 2009.  We called it ‘Volare: to fly’…” she trailed off.

“Anything else?” I asked, scribbling her comments.  When I looked up, she was positively brimmed up with tears.

“Just that I miss it.”  She shook her head and sniffed.

I tucked my pen away and lowered my notebook.  “This choir stuff.  It’s pretty powerful, isn’t it.”

“Oh absolutely.”  She sniffed again and came back to herself.  “Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go check on a few last things.  Doves.  Everyone wants to release doves.  But what do you do with them in the meantime, I ask you…” she hurried away.

To Be Continued.....

PART FOUR: My Choir, Your Choir, Chicago's Choir: A History of Wicker Park Choral Singers, 2008 - 2012

“What about the singers?” I asked.  “Can’t have a choir without singers, right?” “Certainly not,” Mark smiled, “but I’m actually just about worn out here.”

I glanced down at my pages of notes, figuring I’d scribbled enough for a first installment.  “Yeah, alright, we can go with this for now.”

Angela glanced at Mark and then slid a sheet of paper across the table to me.  “Since you seem like a decent sort of person…why don’t you ask some of our members about their experiences yourself?  Guard this with your life, honey.  Chat them up when you have the chance.  Get to know our operation.”  The mink crawled its way up her extended arm and lounged about her shoulders.

“Sure.  Sure thing.”  I tucked the sheet into my briefcase and stood as they left the table.

*   *   *   *   *

I started with Tim.  He was a business-type, in development, but worked at the opera house.  Seemed like a solid place to start, and he’d been in the choir from the first day of rehearsal.

“So, Mr. Holbrook, tell me about your experience with the choir.”

“Wait, what?  I thought you had an appointment to discuss an investment from WLS.  We have radio time.”

“It’s alright, I’m on the level.”

Tim looked warily to the side of his desk, adjusted a pile of notes, and then came back around to me.  “So he’s finally coming out with this project, eh?  About time.”

“Yeah?”  I wrote a note. “What do you mean, about time.”

“Well, we need to keep expanding our audience.  Singing for a lot of people makes it easier when your venue is…hot.  It was rough in that church over the summer, and Mark, well…”

“It’s alright,” I assured him again.  “He asked you to be honest.”

“Well, he was really passionate about his conducting, and we were all friends, see, but that only goes so far.  We ended up twiddling our thumbs once in a while.  Oh and he didn’t ask for music deposits.”

“Music deposits?”

“Yeah, you know, a couple bucks to make sure we don’t waltz off with the scores.”

“The scores?  Like the prize money?”

“You journalist types…” Tim rolled his eyes.  “The sheet music.  The paper copies of the songs we sing.”

“Fine fine.”

“Sorry, I’m just late to a meeting now.  One of our feathered up dancers blew her ankle in a dance hall and lost us a contract with Listerine.  They wash out the vice, you know, they don’t promote it.”

“One last question.  When was that first performance?”

Tim looked nostalgic for a second.  “It was on August 10, 2008.  Round about noon.  And you know, it was really solid in the end.  Really something.”

I stood and shook his hand.  “Thanks for you time.  Sorry about the dancer.”

“Me too.  Oh, and you might talk to Joan Cinquegrani next.  Gotta run.”

To Be Continued....

PART THREE: My Choir, Your Choir, Chicago's Choir: A History of Wicker Park Choral Singers, 2008 - 2012

Mark started to answer his list of questions.  He wanted fulfillment out of life, obviously.  He wanted to be the musician he was capable of being.  He had choral music in his background, a few semesters of conducting classes, positive reinforcement from friends and family as to his musical ability.  And he knew that choir was the best of the art-form that he loved.  For him, choir was the pinnacle. So, he looked into graduate school for choral conducting.  He met all the application requirements sans one—two years of successful conducting experience…

So, then he looked into getting conducting experience.  Again, he met all the application requirements for conducting jobs sans one—he needed a master's degree in conducting…

Mark, being the earnest and forthright “Gentleman” that he is took those requirements at face value, rather than pushing and prodding employers and universities as to the shades of grey surrounding their application processes.  And it’s a good thing he did, because that earnestness led him smack dab to the realization that it was time.  It was time for his own choir.  And freedom.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mark knew he had a ready and willing friend base he could call on for help.  He also had Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way tucked under his arm.  He finally felt unstuck.  He felt creative.  His mind-frame was right, his limitations were imaginary, and he was full of possibility.  He was so fired up that he only got to step nine of the book (but still recommends the whole thing, FYI).

*   *   *   *   *

“It was then that you met your arch nemesis, right?”  It was a dangerous question and I steeled myself for the possible backlash with a bit more liquid courage.

Mark stared at me for a good long second and then nodded.  “Yeah.  Yeah it was then.”  He picked at a knot in the table.  “Just call him J. Bentley in your article, there, OK?”

“That’s too obvious,” Angela remarked.  “Call him Jack B.”

“But you know, he pushed me.  He challenged me.  He told me I couldn't do this choir thing, and I did.  So, maybe I should thank him.  Send him some flowers in prison or something.”

“Put a file in ‘em?”  I ask.

“Nah, I don’t want to thank him that much.

*   *   *   *   *

So, I came to find out, that Mark started asking around for help.  And the funny thing was that everything magically fell into place—the way things often do when you work up the courage to ask about them for the first time.

The music, for instance:  A quick visit home to the alma mater, an outdated map to the choral music closet, and Mark emerged teeming with scores and covered with spiders.

The rehearsal space:  This was a doozy.  Mark was on a walk in his neighborhood thinking over this particular conundrum when he arrived at the intersection of Hoyne and LeMoyne.  There stood the 125 year old landmark that is Wicker Park Lutheran Church.  The sign out front had a website listed.  It was worth a shot.

That same evening Mark placed a call to Pastor Ruth, introducing himself as the conductor of the Wicker Park Choral Singers (conveniently glossing over the detail that his choir wasn't exactly an ensemble yet).  He explained the situation, and Pastor Ruth invited Mark into her home and chatted him up.  Five minutes of explaining his choir and Ruth had heard enough.  Of course he could use the church...for free.

Pastor Ruth passed away in early 2012.  But Mark—really all of us in Wicker Park Choral Singers—find it difficult to imagine our organization without the partnership of the church, facilitated by the lovely Ruth.  Her generosity was critical in getting the group off the ground.  Because of her and her church we have the privilege of sharing our love of choral music with each other.  Singing in her funeral services brought the gift full circle. Thank you, Pastor Ruth.

The performance venue:  Naturally, Mark looked for a performance venue within the Wicker Park community.  He opened conversation with Doug Wood, who oversees all the gardening that goes on in Wicker Park and helps to set the concerts in the park.  Mark initially thought that the Wicker Park Fieldhouse would be the only available rehearsal space, but with rehearsals covered, he extended his hopes as to the park as a place for performance.  He was not disappointed.  Wood suggested that the choir perform at the intermission of a programmed string quartet.

To be continued....

 

It Took a Whole Lot of Villages to Create Swahili

Our concert this season is premised on the idea that “it takes a village” to make something as extraordinarily amazing and collaborative as choral music.  So, I thought I would briefly explain how the language of Swahili, used in our Kenyan piece Wana Baraka, also owes its origins to awesome community efforts. The coastal region of Africa was part of what historians call the Indian Ocean World Trade System.  A world system is a sphere of influence, usually political or economic, that governs a region.  These systems can overlap and create gigantic, intricate structures, which is what happened here.  China, India, and the Arabian peninsula, all realized somewhat simultaneously that each of the other spheres had goods and commodities they wanted.  So they started to intermingle, intermarry, and learn how to communicate with each other, using Arabic as the sort of lingua franca of the whole system.

Hmm…why Arabic?

Well, Arabic was the language of Islam, and it turns out that Islamic scholars traveled along the exact same routes laid out by merchants.  Islam was an incredibly non-violent and inclusive religion, and over time, conversions just became the way of things. This created a peaceful system of trade, with a common language and ritual.  Trade and Islam became mutually reinforcing, all the way from China to…Africa.

Islam worked its way down the coast of Africa from the Arabian peninsula by 1200 C.E., bringing merchants from all over the known world with it.  But the coastal regions also remained dependent on the raw materials coming out to the coast from the interior, which were carted around by indigenous people.  So rather than strictly adopting Arabic, these wildly cosmopolitan coastal populations needed a language that was both Islamic AND relatable to regional dialects.

Hence, the invention of Swahili, a language that owes its origins to both inclusivity and expansion.  A language based on the combination of diverse and vibrant traditions.  That’s a pretty powerful aspect of community, I think.

Erin Crawley, Alto

 

Chorister of the Month - Rachel Mikolajczyk (Alto)

Every month we recognize one outstanding chorus member who has perfect attendance at rehearsals and goes above and beyond their call of duty to help the choir succeed.  The Chorister of the Month experiences extreme stardom, receives an awesome gift card, and copious amounts of high-fives. Today, we start with our October recipient.  After her being inundated by the choral paparazzi, we finally caught up with Rachel at a quiet cafe to get an inside scoop on her life. Rachel Mikolajczyk, Alto

October Chorister of the Month: Rachel Mikolajczyk

How long have you been a member of WPCS? I've been a member since our second concert back in 2008. It's been a fun three years!

What is your favorite WPCS memory so far? Actually my favorite memories are always the few seconds immediately after the final song of each concert. I love that moment because it hangs briefly in the ether between the glorious last note and the thunderous applause from the audience. No matter the outcome, I always end each concert with exhilaration and a giant smile.

What hobbies do you have outside of choir? I love to read, sing, dance and I’m obsessed with certain TV shows like The Wire, Mad Men, Big Love, etc.  I also enjoy making music with my husband who is an awesome guitarist.

If your life had a soundtrack what songs would be on it? “Dog Days are Over” by Florence & the Machine, “On My Own” from Les Miserables, “Anthems for a Seventeen Year Old Girl” by Broken Social Scene, “Across the Universe” by The Beatles, “Buildings” by Regina Spektor, “Yoshimi Battles Pink Robots” by The Flaming Lips, and “Mushaboom” by Feist. (To name just a few.)

What is your guilty listening pleasure? I absolutely love Kanye West! I can rap the entire Nicki Minaj verse to “Monster” and I actually did it in front of everyone at my wedding.

If the choir were to plan a flash mob, what location would you choose and why? Buckingham Fountain- It just seems like a perfect Broadway-style location for a surprise musical number.

You can hear Rachel in action at our December concerts and learn more about her and other choir members by visiting out Meet the Choir page!  Feel free to congratulate Rachel on her leadership and tell her  how awesome she is in the comment box below.