On April 2, the voices of the Oak Park Concert Chorale and the beauty of Unity Temple will combine for “Magnificent Music for Magnificent Spaces.” The Chorale, celebrating its 25th year in Oak Park, not only blends soaring voices, but is itself a harmonious blend of diverse ages and ethnic groups.

The concert, for example, will feature a Hungarian piece, as one of its members, Gabriel Szabo, is from Hungary. There are also members from Cuba and the Virgin Islands. African-American singers come to the Chorale from a gospel heritage. About half of the 21 singers come from Oak Park, where the Chorale holds its three-hour Sunday afternoon rehearsals, but others have traveled from as far away as Rockford and Milwaukee.

One Oak Park member, Jackie Ingram, had lived in the village since 1988 without being aware of the Chorale’s existence. “I was looking on the Internet for a community choir to join,” Ingram recalled, “and I found there was one right here in Oak Park.”

Ingram had sung in gospel choirs but didn’t sight-read music or have experience singing classical pieces. Nevertheless, she passed her audition and was welcomed into the group.

She’s formed friendships with fellow singers, is continuing her musical education by taking a weekly musicianship course from Director Paul Lindblad, and is even acting as the group’s publicity director.

“We need exposure and more singers,” Ingram declared.

Even so, in an era when community choirs are disappearing fast, the Oak Park Concert Chorale is a healthy exception.

Concert Chorale history

A quarter of a century ago, the group split off from the Oak Park/River Forest Symphony Chorus, forming their own choir after a European concert tour.

The Chorale’s founder, Victor Hildner, led the group back to Europe in 1981, where they performed a double choir piece at Venice’s Cathedral San Marco that hadn’t been sung in 400 years. Lindblad, assistant director at the time, remembers the group was given permission to use a balcony closed to the public. To reach it, they had to cross the roof of the cathedral, while clinging to a thin guide wire and their flashlights.

The piece they performed was but a fragment of the original choral work that was written by St. Mark’s choir director to celebrate the cathedral in the 1600s. Lindblad spent five years searching for the complete work and finally found the handwritten manuscript in Venice. He was permitted to photocopy it and hopes the Chorale can one day sing in it in its entirety.

“It was a tremendous find,” Lindblad said. “Someday we’ll give it its world premier.”

For now, Lindblad is occupied with teaching music at St. John’s Lutheran School in Forest Park, directing a children’s chorus in Des Plaines and, of course, directing the Chorale.

Following Hildner’s death in 2001, Lindblad admitted it was “traumatic” taking over the Chorale. He’d been involved with the group since he was a student at Concordia but had a different style than the founder.

“I’m a specialist in a cappella,” Lindblad explained. “A cappella is one of the most fragile arts. It’s hard to develop and easily destroyed. The sound is susceptible to acoustics, even temperature.”

Lindblad’s singers have helped make a cappella singing a success by memorizing their parts. “This allows for more subtle intimate communication with the choir, because they’re not looking down at their music,” Lindblad said.

It was no small feat for the singers to memorize the music for the Unity Temple concert, as only a third of the pieces are in English. The rest are Latin, Italian and Hungarian. One described by Lindblad as “sinfully difficult,” involved memorizing 15 pages of Latin lyrics.

Chorale member Lynn Zamora will miss the concert because she’ll be away on weekend maneuvers with her National Guard unit. Zamora’s already missed an entire season of the choir, serving a tour of duty in Iraq.

Zamora, whose family has been involved in the Chorale since its inception, joined the Iowa National Guard in 1985, but wasn’t called to active duty until March 15, 2003. She was sent with her signal unit to Baghdad to establish telecommunications and handle fuel. In military lingo, she explained, they served as the “AT&T of the Army” as well as its “gas jockeys.” They also performed escort duty.

“It was life-changing in a positive way,” Zamora said of her 11-month tour. “The locals were fantastic. They were very happy to have us there and we got along well on a friendship and humanitarian level.”

Zamora’s alto will be missed at Unity Temple but the rest of the Chorale will be in full voice.

“They’ve spent a year preparing for this concert,” Lindblad said. Pieces range from early music to romantic to 20th century; one includes narration by actor Llou Johnson, who recently appeared in the Barbershop movies.

“There’s something special about this group,” Lindblad said. “The level of camaraderie is tremendous. They work hard and they’re creating a community.”

Oak Park Concert Chorale’s spring concert, “Magnificent Music for Magnificent Spaces,” is Saturday, April 2 at 7 p.m. in Unity Temple, 875 Lake St. Tickets are $15/$10 for students and seniors. Call 383-4742 for more information.

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