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Music Notes: Children's Choir puts its best voice forward

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It sounds like a liberal's pipe dream: all colors, races, creeds, classes, male and female, working together for a common goal, pursuing artistic excellence. But it's no dream, it's the Chicago Children's Choir.

The choir has had its ups and downs, but today it's decidedly on the upswing. Founded in 1956 by a Hyde Park minister, the Reverend Christopher Moore, it's never lost its early purpose--bringing together children of varied backgrounds to sing--but now there's a new commitment to making the best music possible.

The CCC teaches music to more than 300 children in eight Chicago public schools in the Hyde Park area. It instructs everyone from "high voice" third- and fourth-graders to young men with changed voices, tuition-free, in basic music theory, vocal skills, and choral singing, both in school and in several after-school choirs. These choirs are arranged by age and ability, and budding vocalists can work their way up through the ranks, eventually landing--if they're good enough--in the red-blazered, 120-voice Concert Choir.

"The choir fulfills its social and artistic missions with a structure that--if three-dimensional--would look like a pyramid: at the bottom are the kids in the school choruses and the kids in the entry levels of the after-school program," says Dave Melis, the choir's development director. "This is where the choir's commitment to racial, ethnic, cultural, and socioeconomic diversity and outreach predominates. The higher up one goes in the pyramid, the more important musical excellence becomes, until finally, at the top, to quote our executive director, it doesn't make a damn bit of difference who you are or where you came from; you've just got to be good."

There was a time when that wasn't so, says musical director Keith Hampton, currently on leave of absence to work on his doctorate (in organ) at Northwestern University. "We always wanted to make sure we had so many blacks, so many whites, so many Orientals--it was a social thing. And if you were a boy, you were automatically in. Well, we're never going to lose our social orientation, but [now] everyone has to function at the same level."

Although the CCC once performed regularly with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, that ended in the 60s when the Glen Ellyn Children's Chorus came on the scene. "I think that, back in the 60s, the fact that we had black faces in the choir caused some problems," remarks Hampton. "But it used to be that this was an up-and-down choir--it could be spectacular, and it could be the pits. Sometimes the kids didn't sing in tune; sometimes they didn't follow the conductor; they didn't read music."

So when Hampton came on board seven years ago, he developed a curriculum to teach singers to read music, and policies on promotion got a little harder nosed. "That first year we had 85 percent nonreaders," says Hampton. "Now we have 100 percent readership in the Concert Choir. Now we have a men's choir in training; we used to automatically promote boys [to the Concert Choir] when their voices changed. Now the musical staff all have MAs. And that expertise is reflected in the sound we make. Now we can follow the conductor, we can read."

And they're gaining some recognition within the Chicago music community. They've sung at the Margaret Hillis Fellowship Fund concert, on a 1986 Christmas special for WTTW, for the National Orff Schulwerk convention, and recently they performed excerpts from Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel with the CSO. "I think it's safe to say that the CSO has taken a second look at us, it's safe to say they're pleased with what they see," says Hampton, who calls his group "less refined" than the Glen Ellyn group and quotes the Sun-Times as saying the CCC is "more energetic and more intense."

It's also musically unique in several ways. Unlike most children's choirs, which boot out boys when puberty strikes, "We do soprano, alto, tenor, and bass, thank you!" says Hampton. This enables them to perform a repertory out of the reach of treble choirs, including the demanding Daniel Pinkham Christmas Cantata, Handel's Judas Maccabaeus, and Vivaldi's Magnificat, among others. (As in the adult world, there's always a shortage of tenors and altos.) They have a policy of breaking the Concert Choir into "teams" to allow the maximum number of singers a chance to perform. And their training system allows a separate Treble Choir (the CCC will send 60 trebles to Columbus in May to sing in Mahler's Symphony no. 8, the Symphony of a Thousand). Hampton points out too that they're the only children's choir in the area to sing four-part treble music, and in a variety of languages: German, English, Spanish, Polish, and two different styles of church Latin.

By any measure, the program is a success. CCC alumni are currently attending or have recently graduated from Oberlin College, the Eastman School of Music, Juilliard, and the University of Indiana (renowned for its opera program). A CCC alumna, Andrea Cawelti, was a recent Metropolitan Opera Auditions winner. And that success is likely to continue: CCC has been getting a good supply of singers, from "Pilsen, Bridgeport, Woodlawn, Hyde Park," notes conductor John Uhlenhopp. "Kids are knocking down the doors to get in."

The Chicago Children's Choir will present a timely sampling of their abilities at a Christmas concert, "Songs of the Season," to be presented at 8 PM on December 19 at the University of Chicago's Mandel Hall, 5706 S. University. The program will include everything from an international selection of carols--spirituals to assorted English and European favorites--to the Magnificat of Antonio Vivaldi, and works by Benjamin Britten, Orlando di Lasso, Praetorius, and George Frideric Handel. Tickets are $10 ($4 for children, students, and seniors); for reservations, call 324-8300.

"The kids are really top-notch, and they're enthusiastic about the music," says Uhlenhopp. "We're putting our best young foot forward."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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