Community Chorus

Commemorating the Centennial of The Red Summer, Grace Chorale of Brooklyn Commissions “A Stone to the Head: The Death of Eugene Williams.”

This year marks two significant anniversaries in American history:  the 400th anniversary of African slaves being brought to what is now the United States and the centennial of the Red Summer of 1919, when deadly racial clashes and lynchings across the country led to the deaths of hundreds of people, mostly African-Americans, as well as the destruction of thousands of African-American homes and businesses.  In the decade leading up to the summer of 1919, the Great Migration had begun in 1910, initiating the relocation north and west of six million African-Americans from the southern United States. Spurred by economic oppression and Jim Crow segregation laws, African-Americans found employment in Northern cities that were experiencing labor shortages due to World War I. However, returning white soldiers resented black Americans who had been given the jobs they themselves once held. African-American soldiers, in turn, resented their exclusion from the peacetime benefits enjoyed by white soldiers. Tensions reached a boiling point in the spring of 1919 when the first racially motivated attacks began. Lasting from May through October, the period of these conflicts became known as the "Red Summer."

 In a spirit of equal justice and reconciliation, Grace Chorale of Brooklyn commissioned Tanyaradzwa Tawengwa, a Zimbabwean composer and singer, and Flannery Cunningham, an American composer and musicologist, to write a piece that would commemorate this seminal period in American history that is often overlooked.  They chose to tell the story of the death of Euguene Williams, and the Chorale premiered the piece in March of this year.

 Eugene Williams was killed a century ago today on Sunday July 27, 1919, when five teenagers met at the 27th Street beach by Lake Michigan. The 25th Street beach was known as the “black beach” and at 29th Street was the “white beach,” but the boys had claimed 27th Street as their own. For several weeks, a team of black boys had come to 27th Street to work on a raft that would keep them afloat on the lake. The boys could not swim, but they knew if they held onto the raft, they could safely enjoy the water.

 That Sunday, however, their safety was challenged by a white man, George Stauber, standing at the breakwater near 26th Street. The man hurled stones in an effort to drive the boys off. At first the boys made dodging the stones into a game, but the game soon turned tragic. Eugene was struck on the forehead and drowned.  All this was reported to a black policeman, who marched up to 29th Street to identify Eugene’s killer. Officer Daniel Callahan, the white police officer on duty, refused to permit the arrest. As the two policeman argued, word spread like wildfire; hundreds of black patrons descended upon 29th Street beach and violence ensued. The death of Eugene Williams triggered a vicious clash that would be recorded in history as the “Chicago Race Riot,” the most devastating of at least 25 violent racial wars that took place during the summer of 1919.

 “A Stone to the Head: The Death of Eugene Williams” is a choral drama for a mixed chamber group, including an improvising percussionist and fixed media which features mbira recordings performed by Tanyaradzwa Tawengwa. The composers explain, “The Mbira dzaVadzimu is a Madzimbabwe (present-day Zimbabwe) instrument whose ritual purpose is to facilitate communication between the human plane and the ancestral realm. In Madzimbabwe cosmologies and spiritual practice, a murdered spirit cannot become an ancestor unless Kuripa, a ritual of confession and collective responsibility, is conducted. Until this happens, the spirit is to doomed to wander listlessly in the realm of the living — Kudzungaira — with no way to transition to Nyikadzimu, the land of the ancestors. Eugene’s spirit was condemned to such a fate. The purpose of this piece is to call on Eugene’s spirit, to tell his story and to assume collective responsibility that will at last usher his spirit to the land of ancestors where he can finally rest. As such, our goal with the text was to honor Eugene’s narrative through the use of as much primary source material as possible. We spent a great deal of time in detailed research, looking at sources that would serve our intention to tell this story as honestly as we could. These sources included firsthand accounts as well as the music and songs of the time.”

 James Baldwin is quoted as saying, "The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it with us and are unconsciously controlled by it... history is literally present in all that we do."  This work is a vivid reminder of a painful chapter in American history that still defines who we are as a country today.

 Learn more about the Red Summer by reading Cameron McWhirter’s Red Summer:  The Red Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America.

Armed National Guards and African American men standing on a sidewalk during the race riots in Chicago, Illinois, 1919.   Jun Fujita/Courtesy of the Chicago History Museum

Armed National Guards and African American men standing on a sidewalk during the race riots in Chicago, Illinois, 1919.

Jun Fujita/Courtesy of the Chicago History Museum

Las Vegas Master Singers a Wellspring of Creativity & Joy in the Desert-Las Vegas, Nevada

When one thinks of Las Vegas, choral music is likely the last thing to come to mind.  However, The Las Vegas Master Singers have been defying that stereotype by making stunning choral music in the Las Vegas Valley since 1993.  The 100-voice community choir, founded by Susan L. Johnson, grew from a small group of dedicated vocalists who came together to sing "for the joy of it." Since then, the Master Singers quickly became recognized as one of the premiere choral organizations in the Las Vegas Valley.

The choir, under the direction of David B. Weiller, is comprised of teachers, choral directors, organists, pianists, and performers from the Southern Nevada community who are committed to forging partnerships with other arts organizations.  LVMS performs with Las Vegas Philharmonic, the Henderson Civic Symphony, the Desert Chorale, the Nevada Chamber Symphony, the Southern Nevada Opera Association, and the Cultural Arts Society.  The group has welcomed students from the Las Vegas Academy, Nevada School of the Arts, Las Vegas Dance Theater Studios, Palo Verde High School Chamber Singers and Boys Chorus of Southern Nevada as guest performers.

Evanston Civic Chorus United Through Harmony-Evanston, Wyoming

Evanston, Wyoming, population 12,400, was founded during the construction of the First Transcontinental Railroad.  The first train arrived in December 1868.  With an elevation of 6,800’, the city enjoys over 300 days of sunshine.  The mayor states on the town’s website, “I don’t think a day goes by that we don’t see an antelope or mule deer or maybe even both! Within the Bear River State Park we enjoy our own herd of buffalo and even a couple of bull elk!”

Since 2007, the Evanston Civic Chorus, a non-auditioned group, has been welcoming singers and enriching the community with their choral concerts.  It began as a community class offered by Uinta B.O.C.E.S #1 Education Center and then in 2012, the Evanston Civic Orchestra board voted to adopt the Civic Chorus, so membership was no longer by class enrollment.  “Though the details of how the Chorus functions have changed, and membership varies from year to year, the focus on community has remained constant since the beginning.  Singing together as a community unites us - Unison through Harmony.”

In addition to their two concerts a year, the chorus has performed at the Memorial Day Ceremony, the Fresh Air, Freedom and Fun Festival on July 4th, the Uinta County Museum Dedication, and the opening ceremony of the Tour of Utah bike race.  According to their website, “some of their most meaningful performances have been for audiences at the State Hospital and the Senior Center.”
 

Community Chorus Project Creating Community One Chorus At A Time-Chapel Hill, North Carolina

In 2011 by Lauren Bromley Hodge founded the Community Chorus Project in collaborations with the Department of Music at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill“We seek to create positive social impact while creating diverse and inclusive music programming of the highest standard. Our credo is Creating Community One Chorus at a Time, and our goal is to plant lifelong seeds of creativity, fun and artistry in middle and high school age singers.”

CCP's programs, led by 17 staff members, include the Summer Glee Musical Theater Intensive for ages 11-16, Summer Recording Workshop for high school students ages 14-18, and Saturday Glee Club for ages 11-16.  Participants receive personalized vocal instruction and opportunities to perform ambitious arrangements of pop songs.  CCP also offers an adult PopUp Chorus, an ad hoc chorus for adults that invites all adults to show up and sing.

“Participating in a chorus is a community building activity that enables people to blend their voices with others, increase their confidence and work as a team. Music proves time and time again that it is able to cross cultural boundaries, bridge ethnic divides, and is truly the universal language. And it is fun!  The continued erosion of music in our schools, due to lack of funding and focus on the arts, creates a need for community-based music programs for students. We work to create opportunities for people to sing together, regardless of income, background or experience to create community and to revel in music.”

Des Moines Diversity Chorus Giving Voice to Common Hopes and Dreams of Those Living in Iowa’s Capital City-Des Moines, Iowa

The Des Moines Diversity Chorus celebrated their 20th anniversary of using choral music to gain a deeper appreciation for the people living in Iowa’s capital.  The music they sing reflects the diverse traditions and influences of Iowa's ethnic, social and cultural groups.  The group welcomes people of all backgrounds.  “We have reached a varied audience over the years with our message that we all share in common hopes and dreams, though we may experience them differently.”

DMDC has a strong commitment to cultivating partnerships with individual artists and ensembles that represent varied backgrounds.  The group has performed for local MLK, Jr. Memorial observances, Habitat for Humanity build dedications, City of Des Moines International Human Rights Day celebration, Earth Day celebrations, Interfaith Holocaust Memorial services and Iowa Cubs games.  Under the direction of Julie Murphy, the group has collaborated with the Heartland Youth Chorus, Nuer Drumming Group (Sudanese), Las Guitarras de Mexico, The Blue Grass Pals, Backyard Boyz, Whyld Girls, New Visions Dance Troupe, gospel choirs, photographers, composers, vocalists and numerous other artists.  Their unwavering commitment to using choral music to bring people together and to give voice to the variety of human experiences in their community is making the greater Des Moines area a stronger community one song at a time.

Appalachian Children’s Chorus Empowering West Virginia's Youth -Charleston, West Virginia

The Appalachian Children’s Chorus, located in West Virginia’s capital city of Charleston (pop. approx. 51,000), was founded in 1990 by Selina Midkiff with just 12 singers.  Today, they serve as the official Children’s Chorus of West Virginia, and, in that capacity, they have performed for governors, presidents and heads of state, and travelled to Carnegie Hall and on international tours to Italy, Austria, Czech Republic, Ireland and England.  The choir’s mission is “to provide artistic excellence, a quality music education and extraordinary opportunities while creating a positive effect on the lives of West Virginia’s youth.”

The organization has grown to include six choirs of children in kindergarten through 12th grade that are located in three counties.  ACC welcomes children of all racial, cultural, religious and economic backgrounds and provides opportunities to offer a superior music education, to experience the world through music of other cultures, and to foster the personal and social growth of choir members.  The choir hosts the national Appalachian Festival of Young Voices, an annual celebration of folk music in mountain tradition. “The chorus's history is rich with tradition, replete with spirit and ably representative of all that is good about the State of West Virginia.” 

Palouse Choral Society Creating A Window To the World in the Quad-City Region of Idaho

With a population of over 1.6 million people, Idaho is the 14th largest and the 7th least populated state with around 38% of its land held by the United States Forest Service, the most of any state.  Since the mid-1970s, the Palouse Choral Society has been serving the quad–city region by “celebrating choral music through masterful performances, educational outreach, and cultural enrichment with singers from the Palouse, Valley, Prairie, and Clearwater regions.” 

The group typically performs four concerts a year under their new music director, Dr. Sarah Graham.  “Music is a way we can affect and have an effect on people emotionally and mentally,” Graham said. “I think in the choral arts we can create programs that educate and open people up to new ideas and cultures.  The choral arts embody the traditions of societies across the globe. These traditions and the cultures that come with them can be shared through choir. When these different cultures are shared, an empathetic understanding is developed for the different type of people that inhabit our planet.”

Her programming for the upcoming season will do just that with programs that include Christmas music from around the world, a concert dedicated to the genre of African-American Spirituals, and a concert tribute to Native American cultures.

The group recently started a Palouse/Two Rivers Beer Choir chapter, which is part of a national phenomenon promoting social singing at bars, pubs, and breweries, and in the fall of 2015, they established the PCS Children’s Choir for 4th – 8th grade program students to foster a new generation of singing in the Palouse and Valley regions.

The Indianapolis Women’s Chorus Empowering Women and Transforming Communities Through Song

Since 1994, The Indianapolis Women’s Chorus has welcomed women of “all races, faiths, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and gender expressions.”  The stated mission of the group of approximately 50 singers is “to embody musical excellence and the power of women and song to transform communities.”  The chorus performs music from various traditions that gives voice to the experience of women past and present while creating a singing community that “uses song and harmony to enable each woman to grow personally, musically, and within her community.”

In addition to the two or three annual concerts, the group has cultivated a visible presence in the community.  They have performed at the Indiana Women’s Prison, the Madame (C.J.) Walker Theatre, the RCA Tennis Championships, and Indiana Fever basketball games.  They have also participated in events sponsored by GALA (the Gay and Lesbian Association of choruses), the Sister Singers Network, the National Women’s Music Festival, and the National Women's Conference of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.  

A chorister who joined IWC over ten years ago when dealing with personal and family health crises described her experience by saying, "If I were to survive and be of help to my loved ones, I knew music had to be an essential part of my life. My favorite part of belonging to IWC is listening to all the beautiful voices singing around me.  IWC is always evolving, expanding, seizing the moment to bring healing through music to our community and ourselves, then rippling out across Mother Earth."

Belle Voci Blending Service With Song in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Founded in 2012, the 50-voice intergenerational women’s chorus, Belle Voci, has been using choral performances as a means for social good by supporting causes that primarily benefit women.  The community-based ensemble includes “college students, recent graduates, mothers, grandmothers, three sets of sisters, eight ladies with degrees in music, two Ph.Ds, and twenty-five ladies who sang in choir while they were in college,” according to their website.

In their first five years, the chorus has raised funds for various non-profits in the Pittsburgh area including Women's Center and Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh, Homewood YMCA Food Bank, Susan G. Komen Pittsburgh Foundation’s Race for the Cure.  They have cultivated partnerships with other vocal artists, composers and choirs in the area that have led to joint performances with "Canticum" a sub-group of  the The Steel City Men's Chorale, Essence of Joy Alumni Singers from Penn State University, Giambelli String Quartet, Pittsburgh Boy Choir, University of Pittsburgh’s Panther Rhythms, Aeolian Winds of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Brass, and Heritage Gospel Chorale of Pittsburgh to name a few.

Recently they launched Giovani Voci, a choir program for girls ages 9-14.  This quote by the conductor of Giovani Voci, Jenna Hayes, captures the essence of their mission.  “I am an advocate for social good, and see music as a perfect vehicle for effecting change. Singing empowers women; it provides a strength we can transfer to other aspects of our lives.”  

 

 

Midcoast Community Chorus Singing As A Community For The Community in Rockport, Maine

When Mimi Bornstein invited singers to participate in a performance of Paul Winter’s Missa Gaia in celebration of Earth Day in 2005, she was shocked that more than 130 singers showed up to sing.  The concert attracted an audience of 800 and raised $10,000 for the Tanglewood 4-H Camp.  Ms. Bornstein’s vision to “harness the power of music to build community and change lives” was formalized in September 2007 when she founded the Midcoast Community Chorus.

The group’s vision statement is a testament to music's transformative power: “When we sing, we change who we are. When we change who we are we change the world.”  MCC is a 140-voice, multi-generational, non-auditioned chorus offering a supportive environment for anyone twelve years and older who wants to sing. “Performing music of hope, healing, transformation and peace from all over the world, singers are given a place to find voice for themselves and give voice to some of the issues of our time.”  The program has grown to include a children’s choir for ages 6-12 and a 50-voice auditioned adult chorale.  MCC provides musical education programs, monthly community sing programs, workshops and film screenings all designed to further support its mission.

Over the years, the group’s June concerts have raised over $75,000 in proceeds that have been donated to non-profits such as Knox County Homeless Coalition, The Restorative Justice Project of the Midcoast, Maine Farmland Trust, Five Town Communities That Care, Knox County Health Clinic, AIO Food Pantry, and New Hope for Women. Ms. Bornstein’s commitment to “harnessing the power of music to build community and change lives” is unwavering, and MCC continues to demonstrate the power of the human voice to change the world one song at a time.

Pittsburg Multigenerational Chorus Bringing Together Singers Ages 14 To 89 in Pittsburg, Kansas

Named after Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Pittsburg, Kansas (population approx. 20,000) was settled in 1876 near the border of Missouri.  The city’s primary employer was Pittsburg & Midway Company, a coal mining company created in 1879 that attracted Southern and Eastern European mine workers in the late 19th century.  It is in this rural town that we find the 180- voice Pittsburg Multigenerational Chorus (AKA “Multi-Gen”). 

The chorus, created in 2008 and directed by Pittsburg High School Vocal Music Teacher, Susan Laushman, brings community members into the high school music classroom.  Members from ages 14 to 89 rehearse twice weekly alongside high school students, and the group collaborates with local ensembles like the Pittsburg State University Wind Ensemble and the Southeast Kansas Symphony Orchestra.  This popular ensemble is bringing together fathers and sons, grandmothers, mothers and daughters, alumni, retirees and other citizens of all ages to build a stronger community through choral singing.  “It’s a wonderful opportunity for young people to connect with members of our community, and for some of the retired singers, it’s a great chance to feel involved in high school again,” Laushman said. 

 

 

Guest Writer, Kent Tritle, Shares His Experience Working With Lighthouse Guild Vocal Ensemble for Visually Impaired in New York City

About Kent Tritle

When Jason Asbury asked if I would like to contribute to this blog about unique community choruses, I enthusiastically said YES and my very first thought was of the Lighthouse Guild Vocal Ensemble. I had just completed a master class with this 25 voice ensemble on February 22nd, , 2017 and the two hours I spent with them was a deeply moving personal experience for me.

This ensemble has been in existence from 1913, which says something about the tenacity of the institution they call home as well as the steady artistic hands at the wheel. For the last 25 years the dynamic, loving and musically divine Dalia Sakas has been their director. She has brought them to their current artistic level, from which since 1997 they culminate their year’s program at no less than the Met Museum. These annual programs at the Met couple music with art, and bring the insight of the visually impaired to the collaborative venture where music and visual art meet. I found it astounding to work with a group of sighted and visually impaired singers committed to enriching their lives and the lives of their audience through this kind of programming.

Logistically, my work with the ensemble was much easier than I may have expected- a combination of sighted people singing from music, sight-challenged people reading from enlarged scores, singers working from braille and extraordinarily attenuated listening skills created one of the most focused workshop situations I have ever experienced.

We were able to experiment with everything from tone production, vocal register nuancing, dynamic shadings, and diction principals to great effect. It was thrilling for me to see these singers delve deeply into new territory, and give themselves over to the ideas and concepts I shared with them. Of course, as a conductor myself, I recognize that the group dynamics existing within this community of singers are a direct reflection on the caring presence of Dalia Sakas and her splendid colleagues at the school. And Dalia in turn made it possible for my interaction to be fluid and seamless.

It was a total joy to experience this very special community of singers. Situated just down the street from Lincoln Center, they are most definitely an important part of what makes choral culture in New York City so special. I highly encourage you to seek them out in concert!

Learn about a performance of Britten's Noye's Fludde by reading a feature story in the NYTimes.

Giving Voice Chorus Celebrates Full Potential of Those Living with Dementia-Minneapolis, MN

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, there are approximately 5.5 million Americans living with Alzheimer’s.  The statistics are staggering, particularly when combined with the number of individuals afflicted with other forms of dementia, and the challenges of the disease are enormous for those living with it, their caretakers and health care professionals. However, The Giving Voice Chorus in Minneapolis is using choral music “to celebrate the full potential of people living with dementia by Inspiring a community-building movement that connects music, people, and joyful purpose.”

The chorus was started in 2014 as a partnership between the MacPhail Center for Music, a non-profit community music school serving over 15,000 students weekly, and the Giving Voice Initiative, a non-profit formed to inspire and equip organizations around the world to build choruses that bring joy, well-being, purpose, and community understanding to people with Alzheimer’s and their care partners.  Teaching artist, Jeanie Brindley-Barnett conducts the weekly 90 minute rehearsals that consist of social time before and after the rehearsal.

From the group’s website- “Steve and Stephanie have been singing in the Giving Voice Chorus for more than a year. It’s their special weekly time together, a break for the dynamic and joyful father-daughter duo. ‘It makes us feel like better human beings,’ says Stephanie. ‘And we like working on something together.’  As Steve tells it, singing is therapeutic. ‘I was a little bitter and angry when I got the early onset diagnosis,’ he admits. ‘But singing is giving me something back. It picks me up. I get to come here and have a life!’ 

Learn how to start a similar chorus in your community by visiting the GVI website.  Twin Cities PBS feature on the group below.

ORPHEUS MALE CHORUS OF PHOENIX MAKING A DIFFERENCE WITH VOICES AND ACTIONS

The Orpheus Male Chorus of Phoenix, organized in 1929, is the longest continuously performing arts group in the state of Arizona.  During World War II, the chorus performed with 21 singers because many of their other members, including the director, were serving in the military.  According to their website, men from all walks of life sing in the chorus including teachers, students, businessmen, ministers, attorneys, doctors, salesmen, law enforcement officers, and construction workers.  The group has performed in fourteen countries, as well as many cities in the United States. 

During its storied past, the group has managed to adapt to changing times in relevant ways.  In the past decade, the chorus has rebuilt its membership from 28 to over 75 members and bolstered its commitment to strengthening the broader community.  In addition to multiple music performances, the group sponsors Boys to Men, an annual music festival promoting community-wide access to choral training and development of young male singers.  Orpheus has performed for more than 1,000 students in three city elementary schools, annually sponsored a singer in the Phoenix Children’s Chorus, and performed outreach concerts in retirement communities and for the benefit of the Arizona Alzheimer’s Association, Hospice of the Valley, and Arizona Children’s Center among organizations.  Members also engage in community outreach by volunteering for Habitat for Humanity, Race for the Cure, local food pantries and Rosie’s House, a music academy for children.

The chorus continues to sustain its commitment to the art of choral singing while using its collective actions to make a difference in the Phoenix metro area.