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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 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....

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...