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In Concert: 200 children singing in harmony

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Every October the Chicago Children's Choir goes to camp. For three days, ten hours a day, they sing folk songs, choral compositions, and opera. Last year, as the outing was drawing to a close, Cecily Wagner, then a junior in high school, saw three seniors gathered around a fire crying their eyes out. Their final season with the choir was just beginning, but the seniors were already lamenting their impending break with the group. It's a little embarrassing to see older kids in tears, and Cecily felt uncomfortable. She couldn't see herself making a similar scene.

At her final camp in October this year, Cecily stayed calm. She had had one of the best times she remembered since joining the choir in third grade. But when she got home to Hyde Park afterward, she went to her room, set down her bag, and surprised herself with a flood of tears and sobs.

The Chicago Children's Choir (CCC) was started 36 years ago at Hyde Park's First Unitarian Church by Reverend Christopher Moore, who had the idea that a choir made up of children of many races, colors, and creeds could make a difference in the singers' lives. Moore built diversity into the choir, and since its beginnings, ethnic, economic, and racial harmony have been as important a part of the choir's mission as the music it makes. Though it started as a small church choir, today more than 1,500 city children aged 5 to 18 sing in CCC programs. Singers in the group's several concert choirs are culled from 20 feeder programs sponsored by the CCC in the Chicago Public Schools. The CCC also offers a variety of free programs city-wide. One, the "Warblers," is a monthlong program for kindergartners, designed to put the gold in children's throats early. That's the only lucre they'll need to stay with the organization. Though parents are asked to make donations to the choir, no children are turned away for financial reasons. Nancy Carstedt, the choir's executive director for the past two years, says "We have some kids who are dropped off in limousines and others who live in boarded-up buildings on the south side."

Diversity can have its costs for a group dedicated to building the best sound. Carstedt notes that the CCC is one of the few choirs in the country that remains committed to its boy singers even after their voices change. (The Vienna Boys Choir, probably the world's most famous children's chorus, is notoriously intolerant of changing voices. It's star soloists live in constant dread of their first preadolescent squeak.) The choir does not seem to have suffered too much from its leniency. Its top concert ensemble performs regularly with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Though singing under the baton of the symphony's stern maestros has its challenges, the hardest part of the concerts, according to Cecily Wagner, is sitting on the benches for over an hour, stone still, waiting for the point of the baton. The CCC has also sung for the Grant Park Symphony and the Joffrey Ballet, and has appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show. Last year it toured Japan.

At a recent performance at Orchestra Hall, the CCC was joined by another children's choir from one of the western suburbs, a group Cecily Wagner calls "our archrivals." "They came to the rehearsal in rehearsal uniforms. We came in our city clothes, looking very cool," she remembers. "You could definitely see the difference: they were all white, we were made up of everybody. They sang beautifully, they really did. I don't want to say we sounded better, but some of the people there said we sounded, somehow, richer, more rounded. If we did, it's because of who we are."

This weekend 200 children will perform in the CCC's annual "Songs of the Season" concert, featuring Ralph Vaughan Williams's Magnificat and other traditional holiday concert music, carols, and hymns. Concerts are Friday, December 11, at 8 PM at the DePaul Concert Hall, 800 W. Belden, and Saturday, December 12, at 8 PM, at the University of Chicago's Rockefeller Chapel, 5850 S. Woodlawn. Tickets are $12, $8 for students and seniors, in advance, and $18 and $10 at the door. For more information call 324-8300.

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