Could it be? Harmony on Capitol Hill? If the Hill is famous for partisan battles and conflict, you’ll find no signs of that at a 100-member chorus that has been rehearsing and performing there for 25 years.
“We leave our politics behind us at the door when we rehearse on Tuesday nights,” says Kate Hibbs, president of the Capitol Hill Chorale. “There have been people who work for both Democrats and Republicans in Congress and civil servants who have worked under various administrations. We look forward to choir more than ever these days because of everything going on in our country and the world.”
Says Virginia Gano, a retired congressional staffer, “For a couple of hours a week you can relieve the stress of your job downtown, on the Hill or working on a degree. You can learn to breathe. You can let the air out.”
Unlike many choruses in Washington, the chorale tries to focus on its neighborhood roots, with at least half of its members living on Capitol Hill. “Choruses that identify with a locality can draw strength from that association,” says Parker Jayne, a Capitol Hill resident who founded the chorus in 1993. ”The singers go out after rehearsals and get to know each other and feel a strong association socially.” There is a mix ranging from a core of bass singers who are over 80 to many young people who are just out of college. Three couples even met at the choir and got married.
To bolster its Capitol Hill connection, members of the chorus perform for free at many community events, such as the Barracks Row fall festival, Eastern Market Christmas events and the Capitol Hill Restoration Society’s House Tour. The Chorale is also arranging sponsorships with local businesses, where members are encouraged to shop. The chorus, which rehearses at the Lutheran Church of the Reformation, draws on local church congregations and other residents for its audiences
Jayne formed this community chorus while working with the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, which did musical and family-oriented events. “At the end of a revue of Gershwin songs I thought it would be great to form a chorus. There was already a Capitol Hill Choral Society, but its director, Betty Buchanan, signaled that she wanted to reduce her large chorus into a chamber ensemble. That left 40 or 50 singers free to join the newly formed choir.
Further solidifying its neighborhood credentials, Jayne points to the special connection the Chorale has with the Monocle, the iconic Hill restaurant. It was there that Jim Turk was interviewed and hired to be the first director. And again, it was there in 2000 that Frederick Binkholder was interviewed to replace Turk, who left for a position at the Naval Academy.
Binkholder, who was on the choral faculty at Georgia State University, is now associate professor of the practice at Georgetown University, the music minister at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Annandale, and director of the Chamber Singers and the concert choir at Georgetown University.
A Unique Repetoire
A Capitol Hill resident himself, Binkholder says he tries to program music that you can’t hear elsewhere in the Washington area. “This is the choral capital of the U.S. There are so many choirs here singing the same music. I try to find works that others have neglected or overlooked, and I find it great fun to pick new selections,” he says.
Selections of orthodox music, early American music and jazz make the chorale unique among Washington choruses. One of the pieces performed by the Chorale in its first season was All Night Vigil, Op. 59, by Alexander Gretchaninoff, which had never been sung before in this country. The Chorale’s director, Jim Turk, was editing the piece for publication and the Chorale performed off of photocopies. “Something happened on this piece that clicked. People loved performing it and that made us want to continue performing Russian liturgical music,” says Jayne. For its silver anniversary, the chorus’ June concert will return to Gretchaninoff’s music, performing his Passion Week, Op. 58.
In 2014 the chorus went a step further by recording the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom by the Georgian Zakaria Paliashvili, the “father of classical music” in the Republic of Georgia. This recording of the Orthodox liturgy was the second recording of this piece ever and the first in the Georgian language. Jayne created a score to be sung by a modern American chorus, transliterating the Georgian text into English characters.
The chorale plans to perform the work again on a well-anticipated tour of Georgia in the summer of 2019, with visits to Tbilisi, Kazbegi, and Kutaisi. The choir previously toured Austria and the Czech Republic in 2015.
Another chorus emphasis, on early American music, revolves around Shaker music and the Sacred Harp. The chorale’s Composer-in-Residence, Kevin Siegriend, draws on this tradition in many of his contemporary compositions. Rare for a chorus, the chorale maintains an open-ended relationship with its Composer-in-Residence that allows for the collaboration between director Binkholder and the composer in creating new works to mature over several years. Last season, the chorus also performed two of his works, Vidimus Stellam and the Music of the Spheres, Opus 50.
Binkholder gives special thanks to this unique neighborhood. “We could not have survived 25 years without its backing. The Capitol Hill Community Hill Foundation, in particular, has been gracious to us since the Chorale’s founding, and people here really support the concerts.”
For information on performances or how to audition, go to www.capitolhillchorale.org.