A venerable Bloomington-Normal choral group has spent 50 years in a town and gown endeavor that unites singers across the generations.
It's the golden anniversary of the Illinois State University Civic Chorale. Lead by John Koch, a professor of music at Illinois State University, the organization combines students with community members. It’s a work of passion for Koch, sharing his love of choral music and inspiring the participants to sing to new heights.
Among the vocal ensembles in the Twin Cities, the ISU Civic Chorale stands out as a longtime haven for singers of any age. Drawing together about 100 performers who range from college students to retirees, they’re bonded by their love for singing major classical works, plus Christmas carols for their annual holiday concert.
Established as a town and gown endeavor in 1968, the ISU Civic Chorale gives participants a unique opportunity to get to know the older and younger generations while tackling sometimes challenging classical repertoire.
Tracy Koch is a professional singer and wife of director John Koch. Together, they run the Twin City-based opera company, MIO. Tracy Koch performed with the ISU Civic Chorale as an undergraduate at ISU and occasionally still performs with the group as a soloist. She noted that the strength of the organization can be found in the diversity of its performers.
"You can be standing next to a student who is majoring in art design, standing next to a person who is an engineer standing next to somebody who sells insurance during the day. And that’s what makes chorale so cool. There’s nothing more beautiful to me than watching a 70-year-old woman with a huge smile on her face, parkin’ and barkin’ through Verdi’s 'Requiem' and just loving every second of it. Now, she may not have the most beautiful voice or she may not be rhythmically accurate, but together as a mass, they become one organism that through that organism is putting through a common goal and that is to make great music."
Ashlie Schlatweiler, graduate assistant for the Civic Chorale, feels the organization creates a sense of community in a way that differs from a strictly university ensemble or community choir.
"It’s so nice because you have people with a wide range of abilities," enthused Schlatweiler. "You have performance majors in this group, but you also have people who have been singing for 60, 70 years. Just phenomenal backgrounds and experiences that are all coming together and it’s really nice to be able to create one identity together."
This is the fifth semester Evan Porter has been in the chorale. He’s a junior at ISU and is majoring in health promotion, and he said one of the reasons why he remains in the chorale is that he appreciates the mix of singers. Porter revealed that he looks up to the older members of the chorale who are supportive of the younger set.
"There’s a reason why people come back year after year after year. It just gives me another reason to come back because it’s such a good group of people."
Ed Hines is a baritone bass in the group. Years ago, he had just been hired for a teaching position in the ISU College of Education when he first heard about the Civic Chorale. In fact, he and his wife Judy were still unpacking from their move when their neighbor, John Farrell, who was director of the Civic Chorale at that time, stopped by to welcome them and ask if they would be interested in joining the organization. They did, and over 35 years later they’re still with the chorale.
The music is great, Hines said, but mixing with the students is also part of the appeal of belonging.
"They become friends. We have students to our home for dinner and on vacation. And the students really seem to enjoy it also."
Getting to know the students has always been part of the pleasure of Civic Chorale for Louise Andrew, who laughed when she revealed that the students are a source of delight and surprise, like the young tenor who sat next to her in rehearsal.
"One night he told me he got drunk over the weekend and he couldn’t remember what he was doing. And I said to him what about just not drinking. ‘Oh, that might be bad. I might do something I wouldn’t want to remember.’ So I’ve enjoyed the kids, but I’ve loved the singing."
There’s no need to audition to be a part of the ISU Civic Chorale, although participants do have to be able to read music and ready to tackle foreign languages. There’s plenty of room to grow, said Ed Hines, and learn as part of the ensemble.
"I love singing near the music majors, both graduate and undergraduate, because they’re a lot better than I am, and that helps me get better and I spend a lot of extra time learning the music. It’s just been a wonderful experience."
The group practices for a couple of hours on Monday evenings. For their 50th anniversary concert, director John Koch has selected two works from British composer John Rutter, which Koch hopes will inspire the audience.
"There’s elements of celebration in both the Mass for the Children and the Magnificat. Both pieces have taken old texts, they’ve taken new texts, they’ve taken portions of masses and kind of blended them together. And there’s just some really awesome music and beautiful vocal lines."
Keeping the singers challenged while maintaining accessibility for the audience is one of Koch’s main goals with the Civic Chorale. When he signed on to take over the organization in 2010, the singers were initially wary of him. That’s according to Ed Hines, who said Koch’s background in opera was at first intimidating to the group. But the singers soon discovered that Koch’s leadership opened up new opportunities for the chorale.
"For us it’s an opportunity to learn a whole new repertoire. We’ve sung one opera two years ago and we’re going to do another one in the spring. We really like John because we’re learning a lot and he has a wonderful demeanor in front of the group. He doesn’t push us that hard, but he knows how to do it in a very quiet, understated way. And he’s a magnificent conductor. We’ve really enjoy working with him."
Tracy Koch says singers who want to level up on their talents will find ample opportunities within the organization.
"Community members who join the chorale are at a variety of levels. So everybody is rising together to put a work together at the highest level of quality that they can. And they’re all learning from each other."
The singers learn not only how to be better singers, said Ashlie Schlatweiler, but better listeners, supporting each other for a common goal.
"It’s all about creating this one sound, I think is the biggest thing that we do together. Taking all those individual ideas and becoming one."
Prior to John Koch taking the helm of the chorale in 2010, the group went through a bleak period of dwindling number and revolving door directors. Longtime chorale member Judy Hines credits Koch with having the vision to make sure the chorale was its own unique entity.
"It used to be a stand alone. We were never with any other groups at ISU. And then we had a few directors who didn’t want to do another preparation. So if they had concert choir, they didn’t want to do another preparation for us. And so, they put us together with concert choir. And that was ... OK. But the thing about John that is exceptional is that he’s bringing us back to a standalone choir. And it’s been an exceptional experience."
Koch's efforts with the Civic Chorale have reinvigorated the group, said Tracy Koch, laying the groundwork for another 50 years of music.
"Community members join now because the leadership of the chorale is so strong and it's moving forward. It has a vision."
John Koch was determined not to let the Civic Chorale lose its luster, so he eagerly picked up the baton. His desire is, simply, to help the group succeed.
"They come up to me after a concert and they say, ‘Wow, we’ve come a long way since our first rehearsal in January. This concert was really good.’ That’s my pay for doing this."
The 50th anniversary concert for the Illinois State University Civic Chorale is Saturday night, Nov. 3, at the ISU Center for the Performing Arts. And don’t sweat the Latin. The concert will include supertitles. The Chorale will also be joined by the all-female acapella group, Beauties and the Beat.
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