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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......
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.