A city that sings

New Philharmonic series joins city's choral history

By Bonnie Blackburn
Fort Wayne is a city of songs. And it’s been one pretty much since its founding more than two centuries ago. Choral music has a long, storied tradition in the Summit City, with local groups forming informally as early as the first forts were built. Today, the tradition continues in a big way with the formation of the Fort Wayne Philharmonic’s symphonic choral music series, which kicks off Oct. 29.

Robert Nance, who heads the Heartland Chamber Chorale, is also spearheading the Phil’s new program.

“Fort Wayne is a singing city,” he said. “There’s a rich tradition” of choral music. “A singing community (is) a vibrant community.”

A Rand Corporation study several years ago of people who sing in choirs across the country found some interesting things, Nance said.

“People who sing are four times above the national average in civic engagement and four times more likely to donate to institutions” in their community, the study found, Nance said.

“They are very generous. They excel in the things they choose to participate in,” he said.

Fort Wayne’s choral roots go back to its early religious foundations.

“Choral music in Fort Wayne is quite strong because of religious institutions that want to have a good choir,” Nance added. Indeed, nearly every one of the city’s more than 300 houses of worship have some form of choir, a tradition that started in the city with early German settlers. (The longest continuously operating choral group in the city, the German music Maennerchor, began in the 1860s as the Sängerbund and continues performing today.)

There are plenty of opportunities for people to join secular choirs as well, from barbershop quartets to the Bach Collegium to the professional Heartland Chamber Chorale. Children are also encouraged to exercise their vocal chords in choirs such as the Fort Wayne Children’s Choir and the Voices of Unity Youth Choir, which recently won gold in the World Choir Games in China.

“We have a number of professional-level groups that address the art form,” Nance said, including his own Heartland Chamber Chorale, which kicks off its season Oct. 9 at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art with a performance of works by 20th and 21st century American composers, including Fort Wayne’s own Robert Hobby.

“We have to exist in this time and place,” Nance said. “You have to encourage people to write for our age.”

The Philharmonic’s choir operates in a different form than the Heartland group, Nance noted.

“We’ll have 100 to 120 voices to complement the orchestra,” he said. “We train the voices slightly differently. These are the ‘big guns’ of voices.”

The Philharmonic’s Oct. 29 performance, at the First Wayne Street United Methodist Church, 300 E. Wayne St., will feature performances of Maurice Durufle’s “Requiem” and Vaughan Williams’ “Flos Campi” and “Five Variants on Dives and Lazarus.”

“This truly is an indication of how the Phil is working these days,” Nance said. New Philharmonic Artistic Director Andrew Constantine “is definitely some of the energy behind this artistically.”

And it appears that choral music will continue to flourish in the city in the future, if the enrollment at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne’s choral music program is any indication. Department chair Dr. Aaron Mitchell, who recently arrived in Fort Wayne, said enrollments are growing, thanks to investment in the program by the university in the form of the new Rhinehart Performance Hall.

“I’m seeing the idea of, ‘If you build it, they will come,’” Mitchell said. “This building is drawing the community and students.”

Mitchell’s vision is to build a school filled with singers, which will translate into a community filled with singers.

“Statistics show that people who sing in choirs are better citizens, they vote more, they donate more, they tend to perform better academically,” Mitchell said. “There are a number of benefits of participation in choral singing. Also I think it just creates a more well-rounded community. It’s good to see a community where that’s happening.”

Kirsten Overdahl is a senior at Homestead High School and represents the future of choral music in Fort Wayne. For her senior project, she’s developing a chamber choral ensemble.

“The idea is to build the ensemble through the year, then leave the structure in place to grow,” she said.

Choral music appeals to Overdahl for a variety of reasons.

“It’s not typical,” she said. “It’s an art of logic, an art of science, an art of creativity and communication. You create a unity of tone together.”

Overdahl is part of the Heartland Chamber Chorale’s “Side-By-Side” program which pairs young singers with more experienced Chorale members.

“There’s an emotional connection with music,” she said. “A release of stresses. It’s to your best advantage to let go. Once (singers) get a little taste, … then they’re hooked.”

Posted by: bblackburn
Posted: Tue, 11/30/2010 - 4:01 pm
Last updated: Wed, 05/23/2012 - 3:17 pm