by Theresa Litz
The Indianapolis Symphonic Choir is the largest choir in Indiana and one of the oldest major symphonic choirs in the country—older, in fact, than the symphony choruses of virtually every city west of the Mississippi. The choir, which recently celebrated its 78th year, is a rarity these days. When many classical groups are facing fiscal hardship, even bankruptcy, the choir is thriving as an independent, self-managed organization, boasting a 200-singer membership, a 42-week season, and highly successful educational and fundraising programs, including a fellowship through Butler University. For the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir is its choir of choice.
Choir members come from all walks of life—young, as well as established professionals, undergraduate and graduate students, lawyers, doctors, and retirees, all of whom have been involved in chorus at some point in their lives.
Auditions are rigorous. Singers are asked to sing a prepared piece, preferably in a foreign language. They must be familiar with the top 12 oratorios and sing a passage from Handel’s Messiah. Candidates are assessed for pitch, range, and vocal agility.
“Each person comes in with his or her own voice signature,” says conductor and artistic director Eric Stark (also a professor of conducting and director of choral activities at Butler University). To maintain a high level of proficiency, members must audition every year, which Stark says is “a source of anxiety and pride for singers.”
“Some members have advanced degrees in music and even hold professional university teaching and performing appointments. Others simply have an abiding love for music,” he says. “We see a dip in demographics when people start raising families. Once the kids are older, they almost always return. These are passionate, dyed-in-the-wool choral singers.”
Choral music has a long and celebrated history as a sacred art form. There is a depth and diversity to the music that is often defined as religious—think Gregorian chant and Mozart’s Requiem—but the moral force behind it is more closely aligned with its roots as a popular music tradition—people gathered together, voices in communion through music. “When we join our voices,” says Stark, “the quality and passion are evident—and richly satisfying. We’re able to achieve, as a group, in unison, what we could not [achieve] by ourselves.”
Kathy Landschulz, second alto, who is 55 and a scientist with expertise in genetics and biology, describes the transformative effect of the choir. “It’s the sheer power of the sound—the rests, the collective breaths, and the triple forte crescendos that a choir of this size and caliber can create—the audience physically feels it.”
“A soloist can do great things, but with an additional 180 voices, what are the limits?” asks R. Zachary Karanovich, a 29-year-old second tenor who is also a lawyer. “I am oddly reminded of monasticism. The whole theory of living in community as a monk is to perfect one’s self through the community.” Merging their voices, he explains, is to transcend ego, to become one.
Sixty-three-year old Eric Oehler is also a tenor. A custom furniture maker and woodworker by trade, he is perhaps one of the few singers who can say the audition process is low stress. “I’m comfortable singing in many languages, so that part isn’t a concern for me,” he says. After singing in various groups for many years, including the Indianapolis Opera, he retired as a soloist, but realized he missed singing great works with an orchestra. “There is just nothing like being surrounded by voices singing together, being surrounded by harmony,” he says, adding that his greatest joy is singing alongside his two sons. “Three Oehler men, all tenors, get to spend every Tuesday night making music together. It doesn’t get much better than that.”
The singers praise Maestro Stark, for his ability to bring out the best in every voice. “He manages to balance exacting demands with humor and wit,” says Landschulz.
First alto Julie L. Paavola, who works as a spiritual counselor, writer, and public speaker, is at home in the choir. Paavola, who moved from San Francisco with her family in 2012, chose as her audition piece Franz Schubert’s “An die Musik,” a hymn to the art of song. Swathed in poetry, it “was a song that I could make my own,” she says. “The choir has renewed my love affair with performance art, which has been an important part of my resettling in Indiana.”
It may be an avocation for its singers, but continued membership requires impressive and serious commitment. Rehearsals average out to be about 200 hours each season for members, most of whom also have full-time jobs. For the recent production of Mozart’s Requiem, rehearsals ran for six weeks (two with the orchestra), and every night the week before the concert.
Performance week can be a challenge, especially for families, admits Paavola. But she sees it as an important step in her boys’ musical growth. “If you have two young boys who like music, it’s all the better if they see Mom likes it too,” she says.
The organization has always been industrious, but under Stark—now in his 13th year—the activity level has increased. There are 25 concerts each season, CDs, and community outreach. In 2012, the choir performed at the Super Bowl XLVI half-time show with Madonna. Indianapolis Symphonic Choir is anything but “amateur.”
The choir has also grown from 85 members, when Stark took the conductor’s podium in 2002, to 200 today. In conjunction with the Indianapolis Public Schools, it hosts an array of educational events, including Harmony of Voices, a program that provides master classes with leading guest artists from across the nation, and side-by-side performance experiences for students. The choir frequently conducts workshops, stages open-forum performances, and enlists scholars and choral composers for preconcert presentations. Among the choir’s prolific outreach material is a popular, spirited mobile performance of “Hallelujah—What’s It to Ya?”
In 2006 the choir began touring, performing by invitation of the American Choral Directors Association. A highlight was a performance in Beijing at the Forbidden City Concert Hall. And this past June, the choir performed Vivaldi’s Gloria at a festival in Rome and sang mass at Saint Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. The choir’s recording of Mendelssohn’s Elijah was a finalist for the prestigious American Prize in 2012.
This past November the choir released its newest recording of Christmas music.
Transcendent, profound, sacred: these are words that are often used to describe the power of a choir. The Indianapolis Symphonic Choir comprises 200 singers, converging in tight harmony into one voice. Taking cues from Stark, after the first notes are struck, and everyone is in unison, Paavola says, “It’s not only that everyone is keeping the tempo or singing the right pitch, but we are in the same moment and expressing, as one, the genius of the score.”