'Our Song to You'

Community Renewal Chorus celebrates 35 years of promoting common ground through music

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By Sheila Black Haennicke

"I've conducted since I was 15?#34;I can't stop now," says former Oak Park and current River Forest resident Harriet Ziegenhals. Ziegenhals founded the Community Renewal Chorus and its affiliate youth choir, All God's Children, directing them for over 20 years before retiring in 1993.

These two unique vocal groups will perform at a 35th anniversary concert in Chicago's Millennium Park on June 11 (see box). Ziegenhals will make a special appearance to direct three numbers with alumni members joining in.

Since 1970 and 1971 respectively, Community Renewal Chorus and All God's Children have celebrated diversity through music, performing around the Chicago area, in other Midwestern cities and internationally. Over a third of the 50-plus members live in Oak Park, River Forest and Forest Park. The groups are known for a wide repertoire that includes hymns, spirituals, classical vocal pieces, original arrangements and folk songs from around the world.

The adult chorus rehearses on Tuesday evenings at a space on the campus of the University of Illinois at Chicago. All God's Children rehearses on Saturdays, and is seeking to grow its membership. "You can meet children from all over the city, and sing all over the city, which is fun," says Ziegenhals. For more information on both choruses, call (312) 427-4830, or visit www.crchorus.org.

Thirty years ago, Ziegenhals would take the el from Oak Park to the Loop for rehearsals, with 10 children, including her own son and daughter, in tow. These days she only has a short walk to Grace Lutheran Church, where she conducts a women's choir.

A published composer, Ziegenhals began conducting at her father's Cleveland church. She graduated with an advanced degree in sacred music from Union Seminary in New York City in 1954, where she studied under Robert Shaw, who believed choral music could be a unique expression of American democracy.

While at school, Ziegenhals met her husband, Walter, whose career as a pastor took him around the country. She founded choirs wherever her husband was assigned, first a choral group for women and men at a naval base in Texas, then an economically and racially diverse chorus in Cleveland.

Like many urban centers in the late 1950s, '60s and '70s, Cleveland was undergoing rapid demographic change. The chorus exemplified how various groups could work together in harmony, and brought attention to the message of inclusive social action that the Ziegenhals' church promoted.

The couple moved to Chicago when Walter joined the staff of the Community Renewal Society. The idea of a culturally and racially diverse chorus that would perform throughout the city and suburbs fit well with the society's mission.

In 1993, Ziegenhals was succeeded by Gerome Bell, who'd worked as her assisting director.

"The unique mission of the choruses has not only brought together singers from throughout the Chicago metropolitan area, but has also built an audience of diverse listeners. For the past 35 years, bringing communities together to celebrate the music of different cultures has been our focus," says Bell.

In 2003, the chorus became a separate nonprofit agency, and dropped "Society" from its name. They've always held annual benefit concerts, but these have grown in importance now that they're raising all their own funds. Other fundraising activities include a theater benefit and sales of CDs and other items at concerts during the year, including a popular T-shirt with an image of a pencil eraser and the message "Eracism."

Joseph Perez, a St. Giles parishioner, was the first president of the chorus' board. The current president is Marcella Thomas. "All of our leaders are volunteers?#34;they've gone beyond the norm of giving of themselves, making the dream a reality. Their commitment should be applauded," says Thomas, a member of the chorus since 1993.

Oak Park resident Janine Katonah has been in the chorus for 34 years. She was the first member to be pregnant during a concert season, and made a maternity smock that went over the blue concert dress the women wore. The smock was passed down to other expectant moms.

"It was not only the music and the mission, but the community. We became a family." says Katonah, who laughingly describes the "34 years of Tuesdays" she's spent at rehearsals.

The chorus began presenting concerts overseas in Romania in 1976. Since then they've traveled internationally on seven tours, performing in Russia, Poland, Finland, Denmark, Norway, Austria, Yugoslavia, Hungary, China, Japan, Costa Rica and Mexico.

They visited Auschwitz in 1997 as part of a Poland tour, an experience Katonah remembers vividly. After spending time helping to repair paths for visitors, the group sang a "silent concert," mouthing the words to a Hebrew song, "Ani Mamin," which means, "I Believe the Messiah Will Come." Onlookers were spellbound, and "everyone was crying," says Katonah.

Katonah has no plans to retire from the chorus any time soon. "I look forward to the ongoing commitment of this wonderful group of people, going to places where the message of what we have to say, and sing, is welcomed," she says.

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