Louisville Chorus

By Victoria Austen Moon

In 1939, Louisville was counting heavily on cigarette production to carry it through the last dark days of the Depression. It was two years after the flood that turned the streets of downtown into canals and wiped out the city's power supply for weeks. The University of Louisville was settling into its first decade at the Belknap campus location, and the city's cultural events were beginning to make a name for the city throughout the South. Gershwin and Rachmaninoff had graced the stages of Louisville's theaters, and poet Robert Frost had given a live reading. The J.B. Speed Museum was firmly established, and Father Joseph Emrich, a Catholic priest residing in the area, founded the Holy Name Band and Choral Club, an all-male Catholic choir that would go on to become a Louisville institution known as the Louisville Chorus.

In the sixty years since its foundation, the Louisville Chorus has gone through many changes. In 1942, Catholic women were permitted to join the choir. The 1950s and 1960s saw the directorship of the choir pass from Emrich to Joseph Herde and then to Richard Spalding. In 1972, the choir became non-denominational and was renamed The Choral Club of Louisville. In 1985, the choir toured Louisville's sister cities of Mainz, Germany and Montpellier, France with the Louisville Ballet. In 1987, it was again renamed The Louisville Chorus and in 1991, the current musical director, Daniel Spurlock, was appointed. The chorus has released several successful CDs, and its music is appreciated from local audiences enjoying the choir's annual concerts to a national audience of listeners on National Public Radio and an international audience in Germany, France and Russia. It's musical choices make it one of the most diverse professional choruses in the country, and according to Spurlock and executive director Therese Davis, the best is still yet to come.

It's been a pretty exciting season," said Spurlock in a recent interview at the Chorus' offices off Poplar Level Road. "We started off the season by performing a Faure ‘Requiem' with the Louisville Orchestra, and we will finish up the season by performing a Mozart ‘Requiem' with the orchestra is April. It's always an extra thrill to do the great choral masterworks with an orchestra just as the composer wrote it."

Other highlights of the season included the Christmas season's concert "Mistletoe and Sugarplums" with guest appearances from Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph and Santa as the chorus sang seasonal favorites and will include the annual Valentine's Day dinner concert, "Unforgettable," when the chorus will perform romantic standards during an elegant meal at the Seelbach.

We're not a chorus that focuses on one particular style," says Spurlock, "we're an extremely versatile chorus. Besides the fifty-member chorus, we also have smaller ensembles of about twenty-four singers who go out and perform also and quartets that go into the schools and do educational performances. We also have an octet where we put the two quartets together for performances. So we've done everything from a quartet concert to a full orchestra concert and the variety and versatility of the chorus is pretty amazing."

That versatility has helped the Chorus become much more popular in the community than ever before.

Our seasons are incredibly busy, and I think out key to our success in raising awareness of the Chorus is the kinds of music we work on and perform lends itself to being more available and accessible to a wider audience. Choruses don't have the reputation of being as interesting as, say, orchestral music. And it is a stereotype we fight against, this idea that choruses only sing long, three-hour pieces in Latin. That isn't the case. Choruses are getting more and more versatile, and the Louisville Chorus has been almost a pioneer in this area. We are definitely the most versatile chorus in this particular area."

The chorus, both Spurlock and Davis are quick to point out, is also not a volunteer community choir that many might think it to be.

We're a semi-professional chorus," says Spurlock, "everyone auditions, and we run it on a very professional basis. People who come and audition usually have had considerable vocal training and considerable vocal experience. We have a paid core of members, and the rest are volunteers. Our volunteers are wonderful, too — very professional."

Considering that the heavy concert schedule of the Chorus' season (10-12 performances a year) and the professional quality demanded of the Chorus members requires a rather grueling rehearsal schedule, Chorus members have to not only love what they do, but be very good at it as well.

Our members have to know the music when they come into rehearsal," says Spurlock, "we don't bang out parts because we really don't have the time."

The Louisville Chorus has become known nationally for its quality, and pieces from its CDs have even been used as introductory music by National Public Radio. The Chorus also had an opportunity in 1992 to sing "My Old Kentucky Home" in Russian for a Russian telecast of the Kentucky Derby.

Someone came into our rehearsal the night before and taught us the Russian translation," Spurlock remembers. The ensuing broadcast was shown to an audience of 300 million.

Despite the Chorus' success, funding is tight and one of the necessary components of continuing the Chorus' jam-packed concert schedule is fundraising.

We have marketing to pay for, music to pay for, musicians to pay for. We're like any other arts agency big or small — we have to do fundraising, and competition for the arts dollar is very tight both culturally and demographically. Louisville is one of the finest places in the country for the arts, and there is so much quality going on here so there is a lot of competition here, too."

The rest of the Louisville Chorus' season includes the "Unforgettable" Valentine Dinner Concert on February 14, the Mozart "Requiem" on April 29 and the Season Opener for the Iroquois Amphitheater on May 21. For more information regarding auditions, donations or season concerts, contact the Louisville Chorus offices at 968-6300.