WORTHINGTON - In a world of instant gratification, trends and loyalty, longevity can be a rare find.
Worthington’s Chamber Singers defy the odds, both in endurance as an entity and in Christmas Spirit in this year’s annual concert.
Twenty-five years ago, the Chamber Singers began as a 11-member group fondly known as the “Chamber Potts,” named after Bill Potts, who organized benefit concerts for various projects around town. It was February 1993 and the group, asked to be a part of one of Potts’ benefits and put together by Steve Rubis, had so much fun singing that they never stopped.
“We invited other community people to sing with us,” explained Brenda DeSmith, charter member of the Singers. “We sang at Corn Off the Cob, Pioneer Village, band concerts. Our first actual Christmas concert was in 1996, when Joan Mork took over as director.”
Almost every year since has seen the Chamber Singers putting on a Christmas concert.
LeRoy Christoffels has been a member of the Chamber since he moved to Worthington 20 years ago.
“I love the quality of the music and the excellent singers,” Christoffels said of his long-time participation. “The music is challenging, and it brings me back to my college days and makes me feel younger again.”
Nancy Hofstee, brand new to the choir this year, also likes the thrill of learning the music.
“This is a good challenge for me,” Hofstee admitted. “I’ve always kind of wanted to sing with them, and this year there was an opening.”
Even music teacher Debra Moe, part of the group since 2012, used the term “challenge” to describe her experience with the Singers.
“It’s just fun to sing with the group and to challenge myself musically and to be able to share those gifts with the community,” said Moe.
Each year Eric Parrish, in his 10th year directing the Chamber, chooses a theme for the concert. This year’s theme is “Women of the Promise.”
“Augsburg’s choir performed here in April,” said Parrish. “It was then that I thought it would be cool to have women as a theme for this year’s Chamber concert.”
Parrish hoped to have every song, both the music and lyrics, be written by women, but that didn’t entirely play out. However, every piece performed at this year’s concert has at least been either composed by or has lyrics written by women. Some of the pieces are well-loved traditional Christmas songs and will be recognized by the audience but one piece for sure has never been heard before in Worthington - or anywhere, for that matter.
“I had the idea last year, that we should commission a song for our 25th anniversary concert,” recalled Parrish. “To see this whim of an idea, this dream to see someone say, ‘Yes, let’s do it,’ and the collaboration of it, has been inspiring and refreshing and food for the soul,” he continued. “So often we don’t get the opportunity to create something new.”
Seeing this dream come true took a bit of effort on Parrish’s part. To begin with, he applied for and received a State Arts Board Grant. It was the first time the Chamber Singers had asked for a grant, and Parrish was pleased to receive it.
Then he faced the question of lyrics - should he used an existing poem or commission a new one? Because of copyright issues, using an existing poem can be expensive and it can be challenging to receive permission. The other option was to seek a poet to write entirely new lyrics, but then he faced the challenge of finding the right poet for the job.
It turned out that he didn’t have to look very far.
“On a whim I sent Erin Makela (Worthington Middle School seventh-grade English teacher) an email,” said Parrish. “I knew that she’d had some poems printed in a Lutheran journal, and thought she might be interested to give it a try.”
“Eric came to me and said, ‘This is my idea’,” said Makela. “He wanted something written on the announcement to Mary.” Makela laughed. “No small topic, there. I tried really hard to come at it from a different angle and it was not working. So I set up an appointment with Pastor Jeanette (McCormick, from First Lutheran Church in Worthington), and she really helped. She gave me a bunch of different articles on Mary coming from a place of no power and where a women was shut out, and then the first draft came from there in about three or four hours.”
With the lyricist hard at work, Parrish needed to find a composer. And given the parameters of the event, just as with the lyricist, the composer needed to be a woman.
“Joe Osowski was a former choir director at Worthington High School,” explained Parrish. “He also directed the Chamber Singers. His wife, Clara, knew Linda Kachelmeier, a Minnesota composer. I contacted her, and she was very interested.
“I told her I wanted it to feel old and new at the same time,” Parrish said of the song he was hoping she’d compose. “She took that and incorporated a Gallic traditional chant melody in Latin, together with her new tune and the new lyrics in English. The chant functions as a foundation and weaves the old and new together.”
Kachelmeier called the phone call she received from Parrish, “The kind of call you love to get.”
A native of Wisconsin, Kachelmeier moved to Minnesota in 1989. She recalled that it was difficult to break into composing as a woman in part because she had very few role models of women composers. She was exactly the person Parrish was looking for, and she jumped on board.
“I loved Erin’s poem from the start,” Kachelmeier said. “I went to a little cabin near Mille Lacs and basically wrote most of the piece there. I love to be in nature when I write my music.”
It took approximately three months from receiving the text to having a piece of music ready to show the world. The collaborative process between Kachelmeier, Parrish and Makela was a treat for each one of them.
“It’s always so interesting to see a piece come to life,” revealed Kachelmeier. “The idea, the poem, the music and then the choir and they work on it for weeks and weeks to perfect it.”
“Often you’re recreating what already exists,” stated Parrish. “But in this case, we could call up and ask Erin, ‘What do you mean by this?’ There were some things that Erin was passionate to keep and some things we tweaked. The whole process has been super awesome.”
“It was a very interesting process,” Makela agreed. “They’d call and ask, ‘Did you mean it to be pronounced “bless-ed” or “blest”?’ The refrain that Linda added in Latin really pulls it together and bring it into the realm of religious music.”
The song, titled, “For a Future of Light,” is indeed a religious, Christmas-themed piece, though the theme - that of Mary almost defying the status quo - is not meant to be political.
Worthington native Emma Jirle, a first-time member of the Chamber Singers along with her fiancé, Parker Sandhurst, is singing the solo in the piece, written from the perspective of Mary.
“I like the song,” Jirele, sixth- through 12th-grade choir teacher at Jackson County Central, enthused. “I liked the words right away. The line that really struck me says, ‘For I sing defiantly.’ I’ve sung a lot of different versions of the Magnificat, but never have they included defiance. She is not being defiant to God, but to those around her who are trying to prevent her from fulfilling God’s purpose for her life.
“I like the idea of Mary being a role model for strong and courageous women everywhere,” Jirele continued. “The music also brings in both the gentleness and the strength of Mary. It displays how women have not really been in the forefront for a long time but have been ignored, abused, marginalized. The future would be better because of what Mary was doing.”
A better future was also in Kachelmeier’s mind as she summed up her feelings about the song she wrote.
“I love to think about all the other choirs that may be doing this in the future. But Worthington will always have the credit, the commission. Your community brought this to life.”
The community is invited to attend “Women of the Promise” at 3 p.m. Dec. 9, at First United Methodist Church, 408 11th St, Worthington. This year’s free-will offering will go to the two local food pantries.